As we discussed earlier, the Justice Department issued a statement after the passage of state laws legalizing marijuana that they would not affected federal enforcement. Obama officials also stated after the election (after being silent during the campaign) that marijuana policy would not change. Now, President Obama has given an interview that the federal government will not make enforcement a “priority” against recreational users. This is being billed as a major scope on “Obama’s pot problem.” However, there may be less than meets the eye here. He does not address the organizations and distributors of legal marijuana, which his Administration has cracked down on for the last four years. It also raises an interesting contradiction with other fields where Obama had insisted that matters are left to the Justice Department on questions of enforcement.
Obama told ABC “We’ve got bigger fish to fry . . . It would not make sense for us to see a top priority as going after recreational users in states that have determined that it’s legal.” His use of “recreational users” is telling. The state police generally goes after recreational users. The controversy for the last four years has been the Administration’s crackdown on distributors and growers who supply legal marijuana for medical use etc.
The statement also contradicts the statements of officials in the Administration. The U.S. Attorney’s office in Seattle (the highest Justice official in the state) issued a public warning after the election that “[r]egardless of any changes in state law, including the change that will go into effect on Dec. 6 in Washington state, growing, selling or possessing any amount of marijuana remains illegal under federal law. … Neither states nor the executive branch can nullify a statute passed by Congress.”
As I noted earlier that the Justice Department statement is a curious statement since the Obama Administration recently did precisely that in the immigration area — it declared that it would no longer enforce the express law with regard to certain illegal aliens. It also refused to defend such laws as the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Moreover, the Justice Department routinely makes decisions on the allocation of resources and priorities. Likewise, soon after taking office, Obama notoriously went to the CIA and assured CIA employees that they would not be prosecuted for torture, even though he admitted that water boarding used is torture. The President’s statement would reflect that he is going that route, but only for recreational users.
He remains uncertain, however, on how he can refuse to enforce this federal law despite his promise not to prosecute torture at the CIA or refusal to enforce immigration rules: “This is a tough problem, because Congress has not yet changed the law,” Obama said. “I head up the executive branch; we’re supposed to be carrying out laws. And so what we’re going to need to have is a conversation about, How do you reconcile a federal law that still says marijuana is a federal offense and state laws that say that it’s legal?”
He can clearly make marijuana enforcement a non-priority and I agree with that move. Yet, such statements on “users” avoids the primary question. Will he continue his controversial policy of cracking down on distributors and growers in these states?