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President Obama Breaks His Silence on Marijuana Legalization: We’ve Got Bigger Fish to Fry Than Cannabis Users

  • by Erik Altieri, NORML Communications Director December 14, 2012

    Breaking his silence on the topic of marijuana legalization since two states approved ballot initiatives to regulate cannabis, President Barack Obama addressed the issue in an interview with Barbara Walters this week.

    While the administration’s broader policy is still being developed, the president stated that arresting recreational users in these states would not be a priority.

    “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. – President Obama

    The president also clarified that he personally is not in favor of leglization, but that it is a more complex issue than his own view on it:

    “This is a tough problem, because Congress has not yet changed the law. 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?” – President Obama

    One line stands out as particularly interesting, during his answer he says:

    “What I think is, that at this point, in Washington and Colorado, you’ve seen the voters speak on this issue. – President Obama

    This is a great start and an encouraging sign that the federal government doesn’t intend to ramp up its focus on individual users. Though considering it is extremely rare for the federal government to handle possession cases (only a few percent of annual arrests are conducted by the federal government), and that this is the same stance he took on medical cannabis before raiding more dispensaries than his predecessor, his administration’s broader policy will be the one to watch and according to his Attorney General Holder that pronouncement may come soon. Speaking yesterday in Boston, Attorney General Holder stated that:

    “There is a tension between federal law and these state laws. I would expect the policy pronouncement that we’re going to make will be done relatively soon.” – Attorney General Eric Holder

    UPDATE: Politico has now posted President Obama’s interview for viewing. Check it out below.

    126 Responses to “President Obama Breaks His Silence on Marijuana Legalization: We’ve Got Bigger Fish to Fry Than Cannabis Users”

    1. BetZ says:

      Same thing he said about the dispensaries, and his administration prosecuted more medical marijuana centers in compliance with their state laws than the BUSH admin did! Ugh seriously. I campaigned for Obama the first time around, this time I merely voted for him. I love the guy, I think he’s a real human being with a strong moral compass, blah blah blah….but this political posturing on marijuana is completely redonkulous to me. It’s not a dire issue, he should be laughing that it’s still classified as a Schedule 1 drug.
      Geez Obama, be a hero. Bring in those tax dollars. Remember when the medical marijuana industry bankrupted California? Yeah, me either.

    2. Gary says:

      a great sign of what?? Obama and his administration say a lot and have been proven to do the exact opposite in reality

    3. Mike says:

      I’m so glad I get a front row seat to marijuana prohibition unraveling. This is starting to get fun!

    4. Katherine says:

      Yeah, we’ve heard that before. What’s interesting is that he’s passing the buck to Congress, as if the executive branch cannot act before the legislature. As a constitutional law scholar, Obama knows that this model hasn’t been in effect since WWI. The Nixon administration initiated the current drug scheduling, and ignored congressional recommendations when classifying marijuana. But now Obama’s saying that it’s beyond his scope? Really?

    5. Joe says:

      Go POTUS! Now you’re on the right track. THIS IS A VICTORY, folks! What we’re looking for from the President are *signals* on how he’ll react to the change in law, and this was a clear sign. Let’s hope his position leads to more common sense discussion and action.

    6. Chris says:

      I notice no where in this article does it talk about rescheduling cannabis; which President Obama could do with a pen stroke; no congress or senate approval needed, so says the Attorney General of the United States.

    7. @melayela says:

      watch #breakingthetaboo

      #allfifty

      imma a unemployed biracial college grad who would like to see legalized weed in usa

      hell i never thought i’d see a blaque mang in the whyte haus now keep it real Barak and let yur supporters know that gov’t can rehumanize the viscious powers of our adamic sin !!!

      phree the quenneh bosom plz

    8. Rah says:

      i want too see marijuana rescheduled on the controlled substances act….period….until i see this done im taking everythung Obama says with a grain of salt. I want legal regulation of production, processing, and sell of marijuana, with no obstruction from the feds or states in thier day to day operations. POINT BLANK PERIOD!!!

    9. Miles says:

      President Obama is absolutely correct when he states: “We’ve got bigger fish to fry”. There are at least several thousand things more dangerous that they should be focused on!!! Now, if only he will give the order to his administration to follow his lead the world will be a better place.

      Mr. Biden, are you listening? How about you Melinda Hag?

    10. Audrey says:

      yeah, they won’t go after the USERS, but they will go after the stores once regulations are set up.

    11. Nick Cannabiz says:

      Show me, don’t tell me… Show me that you have bigger fish to fry…….

    12. Ryan says:

      If he wants me or anyone to actually take him seriously on this then he needs to grow some balls and replace (read FIRE) all of the Bush-era US Attorney’s that he has retained, who are largely responsible for the crackdowns of the last 4 years. Many of them are products of Pat Robertson’s “Law School” and are nothing more then ideologues and have no place serving in government.

      And while he is at it, he should actually appoint someone to head the DEA who hasn’t spent their entire career there.

    13. AGJ says:

      @Betz, here’s what I don’t understand about your post: you correctly agree with the article about waiting to see what really happens because the scenario has an analogue in history viz. the dispensary statistics. This would seem to be a compelling reason to drop your overall positive estimation of Obama, and recognize him for what he really is: just another politician. This is not an extraordinarily complicated issue, especially considering the drug war has been conducted and perpetuated more through executive exercises of power than congressional exercises. The rescheduling of cannabis could be easily achieved without the action of congress, and would go far in resolving bureaucratic tensions holding up the ending of cannabis prohibition. So, perhaps one step we could all take is dropping our emotional connections to elected officials, and, instead rate them according to how well they perform the duties of their offices.

    14. Judy says:

      Things like this are why I voted for Obama! Can you imagine the kind of statements that would have come from a Romney (Republican led) Whitehouse!!!

    15. dax says:

      bigger fish to fry as in harbor side and other places ;/ don’t believe this guy is full of it.All we can do is hope,pray House bill 6606 makes it and passes threw without delay

    16. Jeff Brown says:

      We the people and the states have to keep the pressure on until the feds take it out of schedule I. It doesn’t need to be in any schedule. Free the most useful plant on the planet.

    17. John says:

      Here’s a thought: maybe, just maybe, the Federal government *could* be wrong on this issue. A Federal institution being wrong about something, I too find it hard to believe. Except I’ve been believing it since day one.

    18. Midnight Gardener says:

      Interesting what this side of his mouth has to say. Now lets see what he says out of the other side of it.

    19. green beans says:

      all yall should be thankful for obama’s position…this is encouraging….thank you for your comments obama…now get out of the way! we’ll take it from here.

    20. snafu23 says:

      I understand why all of you are skeptical of this. However, this time, I think you can take him seriously and here’s why:

      Economically feasiblity. The bulk of drug law enforcement done in this country is at the state level. This allows the Feds to go over the biggest fish (the distributors). Due to what happened on November 6th, the Federal Government can no longer rely on state authorities in CO and WA for help. This means that the Federal Government would be responsible for enforcement by themselves. Sorry, guys, but when you look at how much money it costs the federal government to go after the big-time distributors, there’s no freaking way it can afford to “go on their own.” It’s just not economically feasible. And in these two states, the feds would have to go after users, too. Where’s the money to prosecute all of these people if the states won’t do it.

      Even in California, despite the feds closing down the dispensaries, they have never gone after users. Closing down the dispensaries fits the government’s MO when enforcing drug laws. However, despite all the closings, most mmj dispensaries are still open.

      It’s getting to the point where the economics of continuing the drug war are unsustainable and there’s nothing to show for it. Also, you guys have got to understand that the Drug War mentality is still strong in DC. The city has yet to catch up with the rest of the country.

      Yes, DC passed it’s own MMJ law, but it hasn’t been enacted yet and one of the reasons why could be that the Feds are in our backyard. DC’s MMJ law will probably be one of the most restrictive in the country when it eventually goes into effect. DC residents will not be allowed to grow their own weed and will have to get it from approved vendors.

      Once again, NORML and other groups have done a great job here. And yes, Obama is right, there are bigger fish to fry. Yet, by addressing this issue at the state level, NORML has forced Washington (however stubborn it is) to address it and not act like “business as usual.”

      Obama said that he doesn’t support legalization AT THIS POINT. Also, in Cartegena, Obama did say that he was open to marijuana decriminalization. Decriminalization is an important first step and the fact that we have another rare President supporting this idea is remarkable.

      Look, you guys may not like Obama, but if Romney had become President, it would be worse. I’ve already come across conservatives who are angry that the feds didn’t step in and stop CO and WA from passing these laws. And they won’t be happy with this statement. Not to mention that where as Obama as been mostly silent on the issue, Romney had said very time we was asked that he didn’t support legalization of weed (even for medicinal purpose). It was the one issue Romney never flipped-flopped on.

      Finally, House Bill 6606′s chances of making it through are slim and it’s because of the GOP. Despite the bill being partisan, the GOP is overwhelmingly against legalization.

      Progress is usually painful and slow, but this battle is being won. However, I will be interested to see Holder’s view on this.

    21. snafu23 says:

      @AGJ -

      “This is not an extraordinarily complicated issue, especially considering the drug war has been conducted and perpetuated more through executive exercises of power than congressional exercises.”

      Actually it is and you are wrong about how the Drug War has been conducted. It’s mostly been conducted at the state level. Honestly, when a user or small-dealer is arrested, which level of authority do you think they answer to? The vast majority of the time, its state/local (not federal) authorities.

      The Feds have always gone after big-time distributors and sellers. They’ve never gone after users. However, in CO and WA, they would have to because they can’t rely on the authorities in these states to do.

      Once the states stop participating in the Drug War, the federal law has no teeth due to costs of enforcement.

      Honestly, people have to realize that the federal government has a lot of power, but so do the states (even if its to a lesser degre). Just as NORML as said time and time again, states are under no obligation to pass their own prohibition laws or even enforce them. Why do you think former DEA officials wrote to Eric Holder asking him to stop WA and CO?

      It’s clear to me that NORML, MPP, and others in this cause know exactly what they are doing and I commend them for it.

    22. PFunk says:

      Talk is cheap, I’ll believe it when I see it.

    23. Galileo Galilei says:

      @Judy

      Romney clearly stated he would have fought any legalization “tooth and nail”.

      Did you ever notice that even in times of fiscal constraint, there’s always money available for the drug war?

      I’d like to see the ONDCP abolished or at least purged of cruel ideologues in favor of folks competent to devise policy based on science, reason, and compassion.

    24. Catheriena says:

      Geez anyone else feel like the latino’s? Promises promises promises, yet no delivery. Why is it okay for this President to do powders and have sex in limo’s, but he’s telling pot heads they have to wait? Stinks to high heaven!

    25. snafu23 says:

      @Galileo Galilei

      There reason why there was always money available despite times of fiscal constraint. Both state and federal authorities were sharing the costs.

      Now, in CO and WA, the federal government is on its own financially. It’s a different situation now.

    26. Galileo Galilei says:

      Democrats got burned as being ‘soft on drugs’ in the past. I believe Obama’s actions against marijuana derive from a calculated decision to prevent the conservatives from raising a ‘soft on drugs’ issue. I think this is a dynamic whose time has past.

      Romney is an intelligent man who was forced to kow tow to the strident, obnoxious voices dominating talk radio and evenings on FOX news. Alienating Latinos in particular may have cost the GOP for decades. If so, they have no one to blame but themselves.

    27. austin says:

      If i may include this i think if we started out with being able to grow the male plant because the male plant is the agricultural side of cannibis and after we can grow crops of male plants we can push 2 legalize the female plant and use it for many many years 2 come

    28. Jason says:

      As Nick Cannabiz says, you got to walk the talk.

      “How do you reconcile a federal law that still says marijuana is a federal offense and state laws that say that it’s legal?”, says Obama

      To me this is not encouraging. Your the President. I think you can offer something that would show your administration hears the people and will do what it can to act toward their will.

      Optimistic, but pessimistic.

    29. Anonymous says:

      To change the law you have to change congress. Yes the President can do some tweeks by administrative fiat, things the next president could just as easily undo.

    30. snafu23 says:

      @Galileo Galilei

      Romney is a Mormon. Mormons don’t even use caffeine. Romney’s view on marijuana has just as much to do with his personal believes as it does with going along with Fox “news.”

    31. snafu23 says:

      @Jason –

      The federal government has always gone after suppliers (not users). Despite all of the dispensaries shut down in California, users weren’t prosecuted by the feds.

      However, what remains to be seen in CO and WA is what will happen to the suppliers. That’s the tricky part.

      Users and suppliers are not treated the same when it comes to the Drug War. Suppliers have always been the preferred targets (even at the state and local level). This is why the dispensaries in CA were closed. They were suppliers (not consumers) of weed. Yet, this is yet another area where the Drug War has failed because it’s mostly consumers who get arrested. That wasn’t suppose to happen. The jails were suppose to filled with sellers instead. Also, the Drug War was suppose to cause the costs of drugs to go up so high that consumers couldn’t afford them. That didn’t happen either.

    32. Michael Miller says:

      Just as someone as already stated, we need to take it off the “schedule I” list. It shouldn’t be classified at all. It’s a natural herb and it’s not addictive. It does NOT have a high potential for a use. It DOES have valuable medicinal benefits. It’s really not that difficult. Change the law. It’s an unjust law. Just change it… it’s as simple as that.

    33. Michael Miller says:

      I meant to type “high potential for ABUSE”.

    34. peggy pool says:

      When are we voting on this house bill. My husband has never voted on anything but says he will vote on this.

    35. His statement was so vague, I expect the DEA to have a hay day in Co and Wa. More wasted tax dollars, more ruined lives, more evil empire. the big problem will be wrangling in the DEA, They are border-line vigilante as it is. And these new laws will usher in new busts, new land seizures, more tax moneys into the DEA organization. look out vendors.

    36. @Zombieskinner says:

      I don’t understand how bankers at HSBC, now admitting they helped launder 30+ billion per year, from terrorist organizations including al-Queda & drug lords, don’t go to jail. Not one of those bankers will even face charges under Eric Holder’s watch. Yet he came after medical marijuana dispenseries???!!! There’s no justice-it’s just us. I am sick of the two-sided judicial system in this country. The rich RARELY go to jail-now they are getting away with money laundering for mega-crooks! This must not continue! If they had to follow some laws, they would not have helped terrorists! Yet Republicans & Democrats alike like to lick the butts of bankers & big oil executives. It sickens me to the core of my being. I’m a disabled, single mom-If I helped the terrorists or drug lords-where would I be?-IN JAIL! And that is where these banker scum that are destroying our country, with the help of our govt., belong. Peace.

    37. Me says:

      Ha! This way we know for sure the federal government is going after smokers in WA and CO.

      That man is the biggest liar on the planet. He lies about everything. He even said his administration would leave California dispensaries alone, and then after he got elected they went after them even harder.

      This is bad news.

    38. rb says:

      If the Republicans ever want to get back in to the win collum for president.They will need to support legal weed.

    39. @Zombieskinner says:

      For years I suffered with fibromyalgia, PTSD & depression.Thanks to medical grade weed, I am able to sleep, eat, raise my daughter & actually have a happy life. The drugs the doc gave me made me nauseaus and so tired I would sleep all the time. I was depressed due to chronic non-stop pain from car accident in 1993. You go crazy without some type of escape. Alcohol is so bad for your health & dangerous when taken with pain meds. Marijuana never killed anyone-except those unfortunate enough to have gone to jail for it. Look at all the pill ODs and alcohol related deaths. Then look at pot. States that have legalized medical marijuana have had a 27% decrease in drunk driver arrests! Awesome. We need to legalize FEDERAL laws! To keep this drug away from the billions of people it will help is a crime!

    40. snafu23 says:

      @ConcernedBurner

      Even the DEA’s pockets are not limitless. And when state authorities in WA and CO not putting in their own resources into this, DEA is going to have to foot the total bill for this and supply the manpower needed for enforcement.

    41. Janice says:

      Romney would have already sent forces into Co. & Washington.

    42. Dr. Greensleeves says:

      @snafu23

      I’m a Mormon and I use cannabis daily. I also drink caffeinated beverages. Care to reassess your narrow minded/ignorant view? Mitt Romney is an idiot that is so out of touch with the common man he would have been a horrible president. And you can be damn sure he’d have fought marijuana out of existence. At least Obama has smoked weed before.

      As for Obama and “bigger fish to fry”, I’ll believe it when I see it. He wasn’t going to prosecute dispensaries either and look what happened there. We need the schedule to be re-written and cannabis removed from Schedule 1. When that happens, then I’ll believe the president.

      It is, however, refreshing to see him acknowledge that the voters have spoken in CO and WA. I think we’ll see more states vote in favor of legalization next time around.

    43. bongstar420 says:

      Yarrrrrgggh!

    44. bb54 says:

      I am pretty satisfied with Obamas response to recent legalization in colorado and washington and its fair enough considering how complex the whole thing is.But sometimes I find he is a bit shy making sufficient progress on marijuana because if progress is not made while Obama is the president,I am afraid his successor will not necessarily be as pot-friendly as Obama can be.Maybe when he gets old like Carter,he will regret not having done enough for cannabis while he was president.So,the time to act for Obama is really NOW.Change the schedule I to schedule II

    45. Joel: the other Joel says:

      “We’ve got bigger fish to fry” ???
      How come there are no reports of showing any heroin arrest for the mighty DEA and their sponsored State SWAT teams?
      Running out of tartar sauce?

      Legalize cannabis and you would weed out dangerous drugs!

    46. HmmmSaysDavidHume says:

      @AGJ: so, I get it that a sworn officer has to carry out their duties. What I don’t get is how any sworn officer can ethically do so when citizens have said they don’t believe the Federal law is right. Clearly I’m hearing from you that even many in Justice hold the view on this issue that private citizens do. Yet Fed continues to assert Supremacy even as Fed funding of local LEOs has resulted in grossly racially biased arrest and conviction records. The Supreme Court held that Equal Protection could not be violated intentionally. I’ve yet to see how Supremacy can be invoked either before or after legalization when Equal Protection does de facto, prove an intentional violation of equal protection by way of continued Federal funding for the past 40 years despite the racially biased results.

      And here’s where I have a problem with Fed enforcement and Justice’s behavior: they keep prosecuting those involved in legal activities under state law, even though they know that people are being hurt continually by the Federal laws and enforcement actions. How can a sworn officer do so knowing the results are unjust, essentially unenforceable in the grand scheme, and then stand behind a law that’s largely seen as philosophically wrong and with disastrous social consequences?

      BTW, FWIW I thought your comment was excellent and appropriate. Politicians are politicians. All should be viewed as acting in self interest, and things are no different now than they were when our country was founded.

    47. Cat Cassie says:

      @Concernedburner I will have to agree with you. I don’t trust Obama on this issue at all. He says one thing and does another. I did like the part where he said the voters have spoken but that could just be more empty words.

    48. The president can only say “recreational drug” users because of prohibition. If it is declassified as a drug then it will no longer legally be called a drug. Alcohol is not mentioned as a “recreational drug”. If it is valuned for its medicinal value, then it could be called a drug. Just call it WEED Mr. President, as the majority of Americans have no problem saying that.

    49. Cork says:

      Just to those using street words such as pot, weed,bud,getting high,ect. Please realize that doing so is only setting the movement back. It’s not about getting “baked” people. Please educate yourselves for the sake this entire movement.

    50. Richard Bank says:

      Big corrections gives a lot of money to keep its cells filled at $120+ a day. All of those black kids can “hope” to “change” to a better cell-ha ha. Obama can end this tomorrow

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