President Barack Obama said Thursday that the federal government did not have resources to prosecute casual users of marijuana in Colorado and Washington, two states where it has been legalized for sale, in an interview with CNN.
"The Department of Justice, you know, under Eric Holder, has said that we are going to continue to enforce federal laws. But in those states, we recognize that ... the federal government doesn't have the resources to police whether somebody is smoking a joint on a corner," he said, according to a transcript of the interview with CNN's Jake Tapper conducted in Wisconsin. "And we are trying to provide them structures to make sure that, you know, big time drug traffickers, the spillover effect of the violence, potentially, of a drug trade [are not] creeping out of this experiment."
Obama's comments reflect the attitude of Attorney General Eric Holder's Justice Department, which announced in August that it would not challenge marijuana laws in Colorado and Washington. However, marijuana dispensaries already opened in Colorado still operate under dubious federal legality. For instance, they largely do not have access to banks, which are federally regulated, forcing them to operate in cash only.
Obama, who recently told the New Yorker's David Remnick that marijuana was no more dangerous than alcohol, declined to say whether its designation as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act -- the same category as heroin and ecstasy -- should be changed.
Obama said that rescheduling marijuana -- taking it off the federal government's list of controlled substances, or making restrictions on it less severe -- was "a job for Congress."
Lawmakers could indeed reschedule marijuana. But so could the Obama administration, by recognizing the plant's medical uses and removing it from the restrictive Category 1 scheduling. That could theoretically give states more breathing room to legalize medical or recreational marijuana.
"It's very unfortunate that President Obama appears to want to pass the buck to Congress when it comes to marijuana laws," said Tom Angell, co-founder of the reform group Marijuana Majority. "He should initiate the long overdue rescheduling of marijuana today."
Matt Sledge contributed reporting.