Legalize Marijuana? Obama Says Recreational Users Not a 'Top Priority'

“Change” is President Obama's mantra — and it applies to drug policy too. From 2009 to 2011, his policy on marijuana law enforcement has changed drastically. And today, it seems as if that policy has changed again.

In an interview with Barbara Walters released today, the president announced that in states where marijuana is legal, recreational marijuana users will not be a “top priority” of federal law enforcement officials prosecuting the war on drugs. "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," he said.

In 2008, then Senator Obama said in an interview with Oregon’s Mail Tribune that “I’m not going to be using Justice Department resources to circumvent state laws on [medical marijuana].” But after the 2008 election, Obama’s Justice Department began raiding medical marijuana dispensaries and growers, conducting 71 medical marijuana dispensary raids in just one day.

In June 2011, the Justice Department released the Cole Memo, which stated, “Persons who are in the business of cultivating, selling, or distributing marijuana, and those who knowingly facilitate such activities, are in violation of the Controlled Substances Act, regardles of state law.” (Emphasis added) The memo goes on to say, “State laws or local ordinances are not a defense to civil enforcement of federal law.” This seems to imply that when state law conflicts with federal law in regards to drugs, federal law will reign supreme.

Thus, from 2009 to 2011, we see a shift in the administration's policy from prioritizing state marijuana law to prioritizing federal marijuana law. After the president’s comments that were aired today, the he seems to be shifting back to supremacy of state marijuana law. So why the change?

First, Colorado was a swing state in 2012, and will most-likely be a swing state in 2016. If the president were to arrest marijuana smokers en masse, Democrats could lose the state to Republicans in the 2016 election.

The second reason for this change in marijuana enforcement is that leading democrats have pressured the president to stop the crackdown on marijuana. Congressman Barney Frank (D - Mass.) said in an interview with The Hill that Obama is making a “grave mistake” by cracking down on medical marijuana dispensaries in states where medical marijuana is legal. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D - Calif.) reiterated this sentiment in a statement condemning raids in California, saying that this is a “states’ rights issue.”

Third, public opinion does not support the federal government’s enforcement of anti-marijuana laws in states where marijuana is legal. Gallup reports that 64% of Americans believe that the federal government should not enforce anti-marijuana laws in these states.

These three happenings have given the president good reason to change his stance on marijuana policy to one that is more friendly to states’ rights. Thanks to the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington, the president has a choice to make: Which law takes precedence, federal or state?

How likely are you to make Mic your go-to news source?

Christian Rice

Christian is a senior at Georgetown University pursuing a double-major in government and philosophy. He has worked as a research assistant on Economic Liberty and a legislative analyst on economic development, communication and technology policy for a non-profit in Washington, D.C.

MORE FROM

Tomi Lahren wants to rally women to her side after criticizing feminists and "pro-choicers"

"My view on abortion is not black-and-white," Lahren said.

These 5 states are drafting laws to limit protests on college campuses

The legislation is intended to protect free speech on campus.

California bans state-funded travel to Texas, 3 more states because of anti-LGBTQ laws

California isn't keen on sending people to these anti-LGBTQ states.

US military officials seek to delay allowing transgender people to enlist

The U.S. military was given until July 1, 2017, to begin allowing transgender people to enlist.

High school senior recreates Beyoncé's 'Lemonade' album cover for his graduation cap

This is a cap that Queen Bey would be proud of.

No, James Comey did not make an incognito visit to the 'New York Times'

Comey was attending a charity event to benefit foster children at another company.

Tomi Lahren wants to rally women to her side after criticizing feminists and "pro-choicers"

"My view on abortion is not black-and-white," Lahren said.

These 5 states are drafting laws to limit protests on college campuses

The legislation is intended to protect free speech on campus.

California bans state-funded travel to Texas, 3 more states because of anti-LGBTQ laws

California isn't keen on sending people to these anti-LGBTQ states.

US military officials seek to delay allowing transgender people to enlist

The U.S. military was given until July 1, 2017, to begin allowing transgender people to enlist.

High school senior recreates Beyoncé's 'Lemonade' album cover for his graduation cap

This is a cap that Queen Bey would be proud of.

No, James Comey did not make an incognito visit to the 'New York Times'

Comey was attending a charity event to benefit foster children at another company.