When Colorado voters legalized marijuana, they set the stage for another great states rights battle with Uncle Sam. President Barack Obama weighed in last week, saying on Friday he is willing to consider relaxing federal enforcement of marijuana laws for those who possess small amounts.
“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,” Obama told ABC News.
“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.
Obama has long expressed an attitude of states rights when it comes to marijuana laws. Here’s a sampling, going back to his first campaign for the presidency:
• “I would not have the Justice Department prosecuting and raiding medical marijuana users. It’s not a good use of our resources.” — Obama, at August 21, 2007, campaign event
• “I don’t think that should be a top priority of us, raiding people who are using ... medical marijuana. With all the things we’ve got to worry about, and our Justice Department should be doing, that probably shouldn’t be a high priority.” — June 2, 2007, town hall meeting
• “You know, it’s really not a good use of Justice Department resources.” — responding to whether the federal government should stop medical marijuana raids, August 13, 2007
• “The Justice Department going after sick individuals using [marijuana] as a palliative instead of going after serious criminals makes no sense.” — July 21, 2007, town hall meeting
Then there was the famous Obama administration memo of Oct. 19, 2009. Attorney General David Ogden told United States attorneys that they “should not focus federal resources in your States on individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana.”
In Colorado, the memo meant federal observance for Amendment 20, which allows doctor-recommended use of marijuana for an assortment of medical conditions including “severe pain.” It allows for the “acquisition, possession, production, use, or transportation” of medical marijuana.
The memo led entrepreneurs and investors to open hundreds of medical marijuana stores in Colorado. Two short years later, in April of 2011, Colorado U.S. Attorney John Walsh — an Obama appointee — confused things with a letter to Colorado Attorney General John Suthers. Walsh told Suthers of Justice Department plans to “vigorously” enforce federal marijuana laws “against individuals and organizations that participate in the unlawful manufacturing and distribution activity involving marijuana, even if such activities are permitted under state law.
Dennis Burke, U.S. attorney for Arizona, similarly warned officials about that state’s medical marijuana act.
Colorado voters have spoken, for better or worse. Time and experience will tell us wether this decision proves disastrous, harmless or meritorious.
We only know that President Obama has spoken and should keep his word. The federal government should stay out of it and allow Colorado law enforcement, politicians and their constituents to work this out among themselves. It’s confusing enough without mixed messages and veiled threats from Uncle Sam.