* Voters in Washington, Colorado have spoken, president says
* Says would not go so far as to say drug should be legal
* Use among children, related violence, still a concern
* DOJ expected rule on pot policy soon - Holder
* Congress to hold hearing on issue in early 2013
(Adds reaction from senator)
By Susan Heavey
WASHINGTON, Dec 14 U.S. President Barack Obama
says federal authorities should not target recreational
marijuana use in two Western states that voted to make it legal,
given limited government resources and growing public acceptance
of the controlled substance.
Obama's first comments on the issue come weeks after
Washington state and Colorado voters supported legalizing
cannabis last month in ballot measures that stand in direct
opposition of federal law.
"It does not make sense from a prioritization point of view
for us to focus on recreational drug users in a state that has
already said that under state law that's legal," he told ABC
News in part of an interview released on Friday.
"At this point (in) Washington and Colorado, you've seen the
voters speak on this issue. And, as it is, the federal
government has a lot to do when it comes to criminal
prosecutions," Obama said.
Marijuana remains an illegal drug under U.S. federal law,
but Washington and Colorado on Nov. 6 became the first states in
the nation to make it legal for individuals to possess up to an
ounce of marijuana for private use.
The Department of Justice has maintained that pot remains a
federally controlled substance, and states have been looking for
guidance from federal authorities on how they will handle the
conflict with state laws.
Obama's comments do not mean that Justice Department
officials have completed their review of the Colorado and
Washington laws, a department spokeswoman said on Friday.
Asked whether Drug Enforcement Administration agents were
arresting people for possessing pot in Colorado and Washington,
spokeswoman Dawn Dearden said that the "DEA's focus has always
been to disrupt and dismantle large-scale drug trafficking
organization - not to arrest individual users."
Medical use of marijuana is legal in 18 U.S. states. But
federal officials have still continued to crack down on some
providers in those states.
DOJ TO RESPOND 'RELATIVELY QUICKLY'
Obama called the situation "a tough problem, because
Congress has not yet changed the law." He told ABC that "what
we're going to need to have is a conversation about" how to
reconcile federal and state laws, and that he has asked U.S.
Attorney General Eric Holder to examine the issue.
Holder has said the Justice Department is still considering
its options but will act "relatively soon," possibly with a
"I think we will come up with a policy that will be
respective of federal law but also will make sure we are
effective in our fight against crime that truly has an impact on
the American people," he said after a speech in Boston on
Tuesday. He is scheduled to speak later on Friday at an event in
Congress is also expected to weigh in soon. Senate Judiciary
Committee Patrick Leahy has said he plans to hold a hearing soon
after the next Congress convenes in January and called Obama's
comments Friday "common sense."
"In a time of tight budget constraints, I want law
enforcement to focus on violent crime," the Vermont Democrat
said in a statement. "But now that we have a gap between federal
and state laws on marijuana, we need more information and a
wider discussion about where our priorities should be."
In a separate letter to the Office of National Drug Control
Policy on Thursday, Leahy said lawmakers could reconcile that
gap, but they need to know how the Obama administration plans to
proceed. For example, Congress could amend the federal law to
allow small amounts of marijuana in states where it is legal.
Several advocacy groups that back looser marijuana laws
welcomed Obama's comments, even though it remains unclear how
his administration will act.
Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance said he is still
worried Holder will act before considering the views of
lawmakers and others.
The president's comments are "definitely a tentative step
forward," said Nadelmann, whose advocacy group backs U.S. drug
policy reform. "It suggests that he's keeping his options open
to be a little more forward on this."
Still, Obama told ABC that he would not go so far as to say
pot should be legalized altogether. There are also concerns
about drug use in children and violence, the father of two told
ABC, according to its website.
Obama himself admitted to regularly smoking pot in high
school in his 1995 memoir, "Dreams of My Father," but has
"I want to discourage drug use," he told ABC.
(Reporting by Susan Heavey; additional reporting by David
Ingram and Alina Selyukh in Washington and Scott Malone in
Boston; Editing by Jackie Frank and David Brunnstrom)