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Gazette Premium Content Mixed reaction greets Obama's remarks on legal marijuana

The Gazette and News Services Updated: December 14, 2012 at 12:00 am

Local authorities and marijuana advocates greeted President Barack Obama’s apparent hands-off stance on marijuana prosecution in states where it’s been approved for recreational use with mixed reviews.

“Awesome,” said an employee at one of Colorado Springs’ medical marijuana dispensaries.

The Colorado Springs Police Department and El Paso County Sheriff’s office were a little more subdued.

“Now that possession of less than an ounce is legal, as well as growing six plants, if we run across those, we will not pursue charges because it’s legal and we will respect the wishes of the citizens and the constitution of Colorado,” said Sgt. Joe Roybal, spokesman for the El Paso County Sheriff’s office.

In a department statement, Colorado Springs Police Chief Peter Carey takes a similar stance.

But the statement also notes that people still are not allowed to use marijuana in public or “in a way that endangers others.” A summons could be issued for such violations, but it would be done under municipal regulations on possession of cannabis.

Obama said Friday he is willing to consider relaxing federal enforcement of laws against marijuana for those who possess small amounts of the drug. He was reacting to new voter-approved laws in Colorado and Washington that permit recreational users to have an ounce of marijuana at home.

In Colorado, the change was given the green light by Gov. John Hickenlooper Monday.

With officials and pot advocates looking for any sign of whether the Obama administration will sue to block legal pot laws in Washington state and Colorado or stand idly by as they are implemented, the statement left things a bit hazy.

While advocates welcomed Obama’s comments that catching pot users was a low priority for his administration, they said it didn’t answer a bigger question: Will federal prosecutors and drug agents also look the other way?

Luke Bonow, owner of Altitude Organic Medicine, a medical marijuana dispensary in Colorado Springs, said he is cautiously optimistic, at best.

Obama “threw in there the words ‘at this point,’” Bonow said. “OK. So what? There’s no guarantee. It’s very expensive to open these things and it’s very confusing.”

Pot advocates say they are leery since previous statements from the administration that it wouldn’t go after individual medical marijuana users was followed by crackdowns on dispensaries and others who grew and sold it.

“There’s some signal of hope,” said Alison Holcomb, who led Washington’s legalization drive, but added that it will take more than the president to clarify the issues around legal pot. “We ultimately need a legislative resolution.”

In an interview with ABC’s Barbara Walters, Obama said that going after “recreational users” would not be a “top priority” in the two states where voters legalized pot use in November.

In his comments, the president didn’t specifically address how the federal government would respond to state officials, who are beginning work on regulations for commercial pot sales.

Under the laws, possession of up to an ounce of pot is legal for adults over 21.

The Justice Department has declined to say whether it would file a lawsuit to block the laws, but has said marijuana remains illegal under federal law.

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 cracked down on dozens of dispensaries in some of those states.

U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., said Obama’s statements weren’t definitive but could be a sign that the federal government might be willing to work with the states to develop a new regulatory model for marijuana.

“I think the president’s comments are a good sign,” she said.

Legalization activists in Colorado were frustrated after they tried and failed to get the president to take a stand on the state’s marijuana measure during the presidential campaign in the battleground state.

“Here’s the president, an admitted marijuana user in his youth, who’s previously shown strong support for this, and then he didn’t want to touch it because it was such a close race,” said Joe Megyesy, a spokesman for a marijuana legalization group.

Colorado’s Democratic governor, John Hickenlooper, said Obama’s statements didn’t settle questions about regulating pot.

“If the Justice Department and the president come together and together release a statement along those lines, it would certainly give us some clarity,” he said.

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