Obama: Pot prosecutions are not a priority

Hickenlooper says feds’ intent still ‘unclear’

DENVER – President Barack Obama said his administration will not make a high priority of prosecuting marijuana users in Colorado and Washington state, where voters legalized the drug in November.

“We’ve got bigger fish to fry,” Obama said in an interview with ABC News’ Barbara Walters, which aired Friday.

“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,

However, Gov. John Hickenlooper said he’s still waiting for more clarity from the Obama administration about how it will react to Colorado’s law.

Amendment 64 legalized the possession and use in private of small amounts of marijuana, as well as marijuana growing operations and retail sales by specially licensed stores. Legislators will have to figure out by summer how to regulate the new industry.

Hickenlooper did not support Amendment 64, but he said he will do his best to implement it now that 55 percent of voters supported it. He has asked the Department of Justice to say what it will do in Colorado, because marijuana remains illegal under federal law.

Obama’s statement did not clarify the situation for Hickenlooper.

“I’m unclear on whether the Justice Department and the president are in concert. There are some comments that his statement was taken out of context,” he said. “If the Justice Department and the president come together and release a statement along those lines, it would give us some clarity.”

At the beginning of his first term, Obama said his administration would not prosecute medical marijuana users in states where it is legal. The comments helped create an explosion in medical marijuana stores in Colorado, but Obama’s Justice Department has since prosecuted some people in the medical-marijuana business.

“Admittedly, more clarity from Washington would help us with the implementation of what voters put into the constitution,” Hickenlooper said.

Meanwhile, Joe Megyesy, a spokesman for a marijuana legalization group in Colorado, said Obama’s comments were “good news.” But, he, too, said several questions were left unanswered about how pot regulation will work.

Even if individual users aren’t charged with crimes, pot producers and sellers could be subject to prosecution and civil forfeiture and other legal roadblocks, he said.

Marijuana is a crop that can’t be insured, and federal drug law prevents banks from knowingly serving the industry, leaving it a cash-only business that’s difficult to regulate, Megyesy said.

Tom Angell of the group Marijuana Majority said Obama’s comment didn’t add anything new. He said the federal government rarely goes after users and the president can do more besides passing the responsibility to Congress.

Angell said Obama can use executive power to reclassify pot as a legal drug.

Federal prosecutors haven’t targeted users in the 18 states and Washington, D.C. that allow people to use marijuana for medical reasons. However, federal agents have still cracked down on dozens of dispensaries in some of those states.

jhanel@durangoherald.com.Associated Press writers Kristen Wyatt and Manuel Valdes contributed to this story.