When Washington State and Colorado voters approved laws legalizing the personal use of marijuana, governors and legal experts looked to the White House and the Justice Department to see how the federal government would react to the issue. In an interview President Obama granted ABC's Barbara Walters, they might have their answer.
"We've got bigger fish to fry," said Obama. "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."
The issue wasn't so much that voters legalized causal pot use so much as it ran afoul of federal drug laws that make marijuana use – at any level – illegal. The hierarchy of the American legal system dictates that federal laws supersede state laws, which in turn supersede local laws and ordinances.
What is known as The Controlled Substances Act prohibits the possession and sale of marijuana, going so far as to classify it as a Schedule 1 drug alongside cocaine, LSD and heroin. The Colorado law will allow those 21 and older to purchase up to one ounce of marijuana at regulated retail stores. Residents can also grow up to six plants at their homes.
Although the president suggested that marijuana usage was not a high priority for the federal government, the federal law remains intact. Justice Department officials have repeatedly said that enforcement of all drug laws are a priority and they are even considering filing suits against both states so the courts court clarify the conflicting laws.
Obama says the government still has to enforce the law.
"This is a tough problem, because Congress has not yet changed the law," he 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?"
Obama touched on his own experience with marijuana and cocaine in his memoir, Dreams From My Father.
"I want to discourage drug use," Obama said.
"There are a bunch of things I did that I regret when I was a kid," he said. "My attitude is, substance abuse generally is not good for our kids, not good for our society."