Obama on pot smoking in newly-legal CO and WA: "Bigger fish to fry"

Photo: Shutterstock. "Young man eating leaves of hemp. Shoot in the field of marijuana."

“We’ve got bigger fish to fry,” Obama told ABC News' Barbara Walters, speaking about marijuana smokers in Colorado and Washington.

In those two states, recreational use is now legal, but the DEA still has a hard-on for weed prohibition, as demonstrated by the agency's ongoing and aggressive dispensary raids in CA. According to the president, going after potsmokers in states where it's legal is no longer a high (heh) priority.

“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. 

“This is a tough problem, because Congress has not yet changed the law,” Obama told Walters of the legalization in Colorado and Washington. “I head up the executive branch; we’re supposed to be carrying out laws. And so what we’re going to need to have is a conversation about, how do you reconcile a federal law that still says marijuana is a federal offense and state laws that say that it’s legal?”

More in the Washington Post.


  1. So does that mean he’ll tell the DEA to leave us alone because recreational marijuana’s not a major crime, or that he won’t bother telling the DEA to leave us alone because he’s got bigger fish to fry and they’re having a good time busting dispensaries?

    1. Haven’t they only busted the dispensaries that were within [x] feet of a school/church/whatever?  I don’t recall hearing about any other busts in Seattle since medical marijuana has been legal.

      1. for gawdsakes give them a moment to have their g-man suits starched, it’s only been “legal” just a bit over a week ;)   (also most of the dispensary busts have been in california where somehow the in-yer-face factor got to the feds)

  2. So issue a specific directive not to enforce it at all in states where it’s legal. It’s not that hard. Do you really think anyone is going to object, Mr. Obama?

  3. Maybe I’m being naive, but if the state says it’s okay, doesn’t it only become a federal matter if you cross state lines to somewhere where it’s still illegal?

    1. Well if Washington State voted to assemble a nuclear bomb (out of all the pollution around Hanford ..say) with no intent to cross state lines would/should the federal government have to bow to the states rights issue on that one?  Ok, now comes the crazy:  “war on drugs” – there are some folks in D.C. that don’t really see a substantive distinction between these two.

      I’m glad that Obama has stated this is a small issue – because that’s right – but i’m with others here worried about what he didn’t say.

      1. I’m not even thinking about what Obama said (or didn’t), specifically – I’m just wondering at what point states’ rights get overridden by federal law.

        1.  The first major incident was probably the building of the Erie Canal starting in 1817.  Other major milestones included the Civil War and the New Deal.  I guess what I’m getting at is that this is not a recent development, the entire history of the US has been a battle over how much power the federal gov’t should have relative to the states and the feds have consistently won every exchange for more than 200 years now.

    2. If only it were that simple.  The fact cannabis even exists in one state, by federal reasoning, means that it affects the market in adjacent states.  Voilà: interstate commerce clause invocation.

      This magical thinking allows federal dispensary crackdowns in cases where the cannabis is grown, processed and dispensed within the same footprint.

      The fact that he is mentioning marijuana separately from “drugs”, and allowing discussion, IMHO, is a positive sign and the sort of forward progress I’ve hoped for in a second Obama term. I’m sure NORML, the MPP and ASA will be happy to join in this “conversation”, being that they have been trying to have it for years.

      1. So what would happen if one state decided to ban alcohol or cigarettes? Or, in fact, anything that’s sold in a neighbouring state? Would surrounding states have to comply with the guys next door, or is it different just because there’s no federal angle on that one?

        (I’m not from the US and have never lived in the US; I’m just intrigued by the weird balancing act between federal and state authority.)

        EDIT: Also wondering why, so long as reasonable attempts are made to prevent the federally-illegal substance from leaving the state, you could claim anything to do with interstate commerce. Maybe if there was evidence of a knock-on effect, but shouldn’t a state’s local representatives have the first say until harm is proven?

        1. historically alcohol was banned on an individual state basis (then the fervor got sufficient to be national, and that was sufficient to amend the constitution) and “surrounding states” could then, and have done, cash in on the “thermal gradient”.

          if in doubt: imagine vast legions of lawyers accepting money to write laws that twist constitutional sounding verbiage into a legal Klein bottles.

        2. Disparities in alcohol regulation occur on state-to-state as well as county-to-county levels.   Moore County, Tennessee, where Jack Daniel’s whiskey is distilled, is in fact a “dry” county.  Visit a wine website and check out the states that allow the delivery through common carriers.  So, yes, there exists an arcane web of rules for navigating these waters, and in the same fractured way, cannabis will enter the U.S. economy.


      2. Well, given the last perversion of the Commerce Clause that the Supreme Court handed down in Raich V Gonzalez, the Feds are pretty open to claim anything done on a state level is unconstitutional. It’s a ridiculous overstep of Federal jurisdiction. It’s not like having legalized prostitution in NV resulted in a tidal wave of sex trade business in the surrounding states. People like doing drugs, having sex and feeling good, no matter what laws or taxes you think will dissuade them. The same hypocrisy is present in the blue laws dictating liquor sales in New England: no liquor is sold statewide, unless you’re within a few miles of a state line with a state that DOES sell liquor. Then it’s perfectly acceptable to sell booze and get some of that sweet, sweet revenue. 

        And don’t forget, even if the president doesn’t immediately sic his DEA thugs on users, he can still make life difficult for suppliers. Cute that he left that part of the supply chain out. How many agencies (FDA, IRS, etc) can just as easily make it nigh impossible to do business with red tape and BS policies?

        1. Blue laws are no longer in effect.  Liquor stores are allowed to be open Sundays in MA now. Been that way for years, actually.

          1.  Come on down to PA, where obtaining a 6-pack of beer, a case of beer, and a bottle of wine requires you to visit 2 stores and a restaurant.

          2.  I lived in Essington for a summer.  Many fond memories of stopping into the local pub to pick up a 6-pack.

          3. That would be nice if I had said “Massachusetts”, and not “New England”. 

            Besides which, there’s still existing limits on retail hours, availability, etc., in MA.  Seems like that’d count as a law, actually. 

          4.  Yeah, you’re right. Liquor stores only open until 10 PM on Sundays, boo hoo.

            Where else in New England are blue laws in effect?

          5. @wysinwyg:disqus , 

            Thanksgiving was a great day for blue laws in MA.  No liquor, beer or wine sales permitted in any store (nor in CT, for that matter).  Also, shops couldn’t open at all for Thanksgiving-day sales, so Walmart and Sears had to open at midnight on Friday.

          6. @google-fa73d974ab95b55be376f92d082f84e0:disqus “Thanksgiving was a great day for blue laws” — what does that even mean?  Do you think it causes a great deal of inconvenience or a serious cut into sales of liquor?

            If you want to call that kind of restriction a “blue law” then fine, but then I’ll just have to disagree that blue laws are terribly inconvenient.

            You should look into other states that have similar restrictions. I think you’ll find that New England is not particularly bad about this sort of thing.

    1. Exactly, he chooses very specific language when discussing this topic because we all know it will just be like his stance on medical marijuana.

  4. My question is this:  why did banning alcohol require amending the constitution where banning this does not?  I want to see them pursue it, then get the case pushed the the supreme court and all federal bans deemed unconstitutional 

  5. Okay, so you’re gonna have a conversation about the conflict between state and federal cannabis laws, that’s great, but why doesn’t anybody have the cojones to have the broad legalization/taxation conversation? This is a billion dollar industry, just waiting to be taxed. Legalization would mean cheap anti-nausea, appetite stimulating, pain relieving drugs, it would be a source of food and fiber, and a great recreational intoxicant, doing the user far less harm than alcohol or tobacco. Not to mention the opportunities for entrepreneurs… this is a no brainer Mr. President. It’s time to stop letting 30s propaganda dictate the conversation about Cannabis. It is time to call out conservative views on drugs for what they are: ignorant, fearful, and factually inaccurate. Also, while you’re at it, It is time to end the war on drugs, which has cost taxpayers untold billions and imprisoned countless non-violent offenders, with no perceivable effect on the demand for illegal drugs or the social problems stemming from addiction and illegal trafficking.

    1. Mostly right, but wrong about one thing, the war on drugs has definitely had a perceivable effect on the social problems stemming from addiction and illegal trafficking. It diverts funds away from treatment programs for those that do truly have a problem with addiction and, well, it creates entire all of the problems associated with illegal trafficking. 

  6. “There are a bunch of things I did that I regret when I was a kid,” Obama told Walters. “My attitude is, substance abuse generally is not good for our kids, not good for our society.”
    “I want to discourage drug use,” he said.

    Prison’s great for kids and society, though

  7. Once again, the federal law is fixed by making it true.

    It is currently untrue.  The Federal Law classifies pot as a narcotic, and it’s not a narcotic.  Narcotics are addictive.  By correcting the narcotics list to remove pot from it, the federal law is made compatible with the truth and state laws.  Problem solved.

    1. Are you saying cannabis isn’t addictive? (Not challenging this assertion, just clarifying.) I assume that any pleasurable mind-altering experience can be addictive, but then again there are plenty of people in my workplace with a reliance on caffeine and I don’t think coffee’s going to be banned by the federal government.

      1. Correct.  Cannabis is not addictive, it is what is called “Habituitive” or “habit forming”.  When one breaks a habit there may be some discomfort, but nothing too challenging.  When one breaks an addiction, as to a narcotic, one goes into physical withdrawl, and one’s chemistry is challenged and one may become very sick or unusually motivated to maintain the addiction.  Narcotics are dangerous, and should only be taken with a doctor’s supervision, as required for serious pain, or the related.  Pot is not dangerous.

        1.  Dude, marijuana makes you feel different than how you usually feel because it changes the effective level of neurotransmitters in your brain.  That is all that any drug does.  I don’t think there is actually a real difference between “habituitive” and addictive.  Either way they change one’s body chemistry.  For example, when I stopped smoking marijuana I could not sleep for days and had a few other side effects; this was not terribly “challenging” but it was a very real change in my body chemistry and I can’t think of any way to describe it except as “withdrawal”.

          Now, is there a difference of degree?  Almost certainly.  There seems to me a much smaller — but definitely non-zero — number of marijuana addicts out there than, say, alcohol addicts or Rx addicts.

          1. As you mentioned marijuana addiction rates are much lower (9-10%) than Heroin (23-25%) Cocaine (15%) Tobacco (20-30%) and even alcohol (15%).

            The difference is that marijuana generally isn’t regarded as physically addictive — you’re not going to go into a serious physical withdrawal when you stop it. Depending on who you talk to, some people even consider caffeine to be more physically addictive than marijuana because of the symptoms associated from  stopping heavy caffeine consumption. 

            What you may have experienced is a psychological addiction, which of course is still a form of addiction — and can present physical symptoms, which can be sometimes seen in people who are addicted to gambling or pornography. They’re different types of addictions, not mutually exclusive, and need to be treated in different ways.

          2.  I think the distinction between psychological addiction and physical addiction is a stoner urban myth.  I don’t think it’s based on scientific medicine or on neurology.  All psychoactive drugs act through chemical means — cannabis emulates endogenous cannibinoids in your brain; to retain equilibrium your brain produces less cannibinoids creating dependence.  This is not appreciably different from the mechanism of cocaine addiction where cocaine prevents reuptake of dopamine causing your brain to produce less dopamine — again, resulting in dependence.

            I’m quite sure marijuana is *less* addictive than a lot of other things, but I don’t see how the mechanism of addiction is appreciably different from that of other psychoactive substances.  I’m going to need more than this “oh it’s psychological not physical” stuff to be convinced otherwise.

          3.  ” I think the distinction between psychological addiction and physical addiction is a stoner urban myth.”

            You should consider researching it, then, since they are pretty obviously different things. Regardless, we are clearly talking about addiction in the sense of narcotics rather than addiction in the sense of food, sex, or gambling. All activities which, I might add, have their effect and cause addiction through chemical means. All psychology is physical.

            Medically, though, there’s a very big difference between the two. Addiction is defined by the type and strength of withdrawal symptoms. The withdrawal symptoms associated with most narcotics are NOTHING like those associated with pot – instead, pot symptoms are more on kin with the symptoms of an addiction to food, sex, and gambling. This is from a purely chemical perspective – again, all of these things form their addictions through chemistry – and the medical profession may call them both “addictions”, but they clearly treat “narcotic”-style addictions (which can actually kill a person, and not through psychological behaviour-altering means) differently from “psychological”-addictions (which are still, like narcotics, chemical in nature, but follow a much different path of behavior with different consequences and different symptoms).

            And medically, symptoms are often the important line drawn between different conditions.

            The symptoms of pot addiction do not match the symptoms of narcotics addiction.

          4. All psychology is physical.

            Right, which is pretty much all I’m arguing: that addiction is a spectrum, not two distinct categories.  I’ve been rather upfront about the fact that I don’t believe cannabis addiction or withdrawal is nearly as severe as for other substances.  Please see my comment above on whether physical and psychological addiction are “pretty obviously different things.”  The difference is not obvious and despite the fact that I’ve asked several times for clarification no one has bothered to provide any.

            It is frustrating to have such a request met time after time with the naked assertion that the statement is true rather than evidence backing up those assertions of truth.  And please don’t just link me to some yahoo answers or wikipedia page.  Show me some peer-reviewed research that confirms this distinction that everyone is very quick to make but no one is willing to back up with hard evidence.

            Regarding severity of withdrawal symptoms, do you believe that nicotine withdrawal is severe enough to warrant classification of nicotine as “physically addictive”? Why or why not?

        2. So what you are basically saying is, coffee is a narcotic. 

          I understand what you are saying, but in reality there are varying levels of effects anyone is going to feel from a drug.  Be it something as common as alcohol or caffeine to strong things like heroine.  I agree calling pot a narcotic is a little much.  It can be argued that it does alter a person’s state of mind, but then again so do lots of prescribed medications that are not classified as narcotics.

        3. Incorrect. Cannabis addiction and dependence is well and truly documented. Most evidence indicates that only about 9% of regular users develop addiction and/or dependence issues and yes the symptoms of withdrawal are considerably milder than those of many other drugs which are far more dangerous, but that does change the fact that  cannabis can be somewhat addictive for a sizeable number of users.

          Also there are various definitions of the word narcotic, but only a minority of them infer addictive qualities. Usually it simply implies that a drug will induce sleep, unconsciousness or stupor; hence the related term narcosis.

      2. That’s correct, you can get addicted to anything that makes your brain tingly.  Even porn, internet, and video games.  None of which are going to be made illegal any time soon.  All the more reason to quantify how addictive these things are and have the law reflect those findings.  I tend to agree with Gordon that if that work was actually done marijuana would have to be rescheduled in a hurry (along with various psychedelics).

      3. There is a difference between chemical dependence and psychological addiction. A psychological addiction is all in your head, chemical dependence means getting off a drug might be hard because of withdrawl symptoms or even impossible without aid since withdrawl from certain drugs can be injurious or fatal.

        Cannabis does not form chemical dependence in the user. You can smoke weed for a year and stop cold turkey and about the worst symptom you’ll have is coughing up mucous as your lungs, given a break from the smoke, start cleaning themselves up. You can’t overdose on it either.

          1. Why do commenters do this?

            -oh it doesn’t affect me like that, so obviously they are making up bullshit.

            Just for some more anecdotal evidence of something completely different, caffeine in low quantities over long periods of time gives me the jitters and a whole host of other issues.  Sure I can have a cup of coffee or a soda a few times a week, but everyday and after a couple of weeks I begin to feel like shit.

            Obviously that’s all in my head because the vast majority of the population drinks coffee, tea, soda on a daily basis and has no issues.  In other news, things don’t always affect everyone the same.

          2. Tell me how cannabis makes you feel differently from how you usually feel without having any physical effect on you and maybe I can answer your question.

            If you can’t then maybe we can accept that marijuana has physical effects and we can move on?

          3. wysinwyg I don’t think anyone here is arguing that using cannabis alters ones self. What I am asking you to prove is your claim that it does have physical addiction properties. 

          4. @facebook-1089660927:disqus I’m not sure why the burden of proof is on me.  Why shouldn’t you bother to offer some real evidence that it isn’t physically addictive?  Especially where I’ve already given what I think is a pretty reasonable argument why marijuana should be physically addictive below.  In fact, no one has even bothered to give criteria for what constitutes physical vs. psychological addiction so you’re kind of giving me an impossible task.

            Here’s a WebMD article mentioning that:

            Many experts also believe that marijuana is physically addictive.

            Here’s a paper that says:

            Although some people question the concept of marijuana dependence or addiction, diagnostic, epidemiological, laboratory, and clinical studies clearly indicate that the condition exists, is important, and causes harm (Budney, 2006; Budney and Hughes, 2006; Copeland, 2004; Roffman and Stephens, 2006). Marijuana dependence as experienced in clinical populations appears very similar to other substance dependence disorders, although it is likely to be less severe.

            Which is all I’m arguing.

            Can you provide any evidence that it isn’t physically addictive? Better yet, can you find me a single scientific study explaining or investigating the distinction between physical and psychological addiction that concludes there definitely is such a distinction?

            Here’s an article questioning that distinction by a PhD addiction researcher.

            Nicotine is supposedly physically addictive but I’ve never heard of nicotine withdrawal entailing anything besides irritability and anxiety which, going by the best definitions I’ve been able to find on the internet, would make is psychologically and not physically addictive. Do you agree that nicotine is only psychologically addictive? If not, why not?

          5. My story is also from direct personal experience. I’m a habitual pot smoker, I smoke nearly every day. 2-3 joints in the evening, usually. About once a year, I do a ‘detox’ for a month (sometimes two) and beyond a little coughing I’ve never felt any discomfort. Admittedly, my short term memory does seem to be a bit sharper during detox, but I could just as easily chalk that up to my replacing smoking joints and watching cartoons with hobbies or reading during detox-time.

          6.  Right, but I’m not saying “you will definitely have worse effects than minor respiratory issues”.  I’m saying “It’s completely possible that you can have worse effects than minor respiratory issues; I know this because I’ve experienced it myself.”  Whereas you are categorically denying that cannabis withdrawal is a thing, I’m saying different people will experience it differently.

          7. Admittedly, having never experienced cannabis withdrawal myself, I did assume that users who reported physical withdrawal symptoms were pretty much making up excuses for their own psychological irritability, anxiety, or inability to sleep. However, having done a little research now I concede that cannabis withdrawal is indeed ‘a thing’. It’s definitely not as much of a thing as tobacco or alcohol withdrawal, but it does exist.

          8. @boingboing-50cce8f9d38eee7b6f71a6d51c071e4c:disqus It is always refreshing when someone politely concedes a point in a debate. It is especially refreshing when that polite concession takes place in the comments section of a blog, where this sort of concession is rare.

            Unfortunately this myth that marijuana has no addictive qualities seems extremely pervasive amongst the pot smoking world and very few ever seem to want to concede the point. It is unfortunate because anytime the legalisation debate comes up, pro-pot misinformation that can easily proven incorrect by people that want pot to remain illegal, only hurts the legalisation cause. The best way to win this debate is laying out the facts on the table.

          9. @boingboing-66bd939ad7010829ab65a6aaf28c9a96:disqus Thank you. Yeah, it’s misleading to say pot is harmless, because it’s not. It can be habit forming, getting off it can be unpleasant for some people, and if you smoke it you’re still inhaling tar, particulates, all the bad stuff that’s a byproduct of combustion. Of course, compared to alcohol and  tobacco, it’s still pretty damn benign. I maintain my position that an honest weighing of the pros and cons would result in broad legalization in North America. An easy to grow plant, usable as medicine, food, fiber, and for friday night fun… it’s a billion dollar commodity any fool can grow in the basement. WHY isn’t this being very seriously looked at as part of economic recovery?

        1. Weed isn’t addictive like caffeine or opium, but it certainly can be addictive to a small percentage of regular users. See the above discussion, especially the various references to numerous scientific studies that document marijuana dependence.

          1. No, there are physical addiction symptoms with some users: nausea and difficulty keeping down food, irritability, sleeplessness, etc. Again you can read about these symptoms in studies; or if you want to go directly to the horses mouth just search some random forums on weed or drugs about marijuana withdrawal, you’ll read a lot of the same symptoms from a lot of different people, from all over the world. You’ll also read a lot of people essentially making the same claim that you’re making, which would indicate that only a small percentage of users have these symptoms.

            Anecdotal I know, but I’ve certainly had them. Going from a $50 a day bong habit to cold turkey (usually only because I couldn’t actually get any) would result in at least 3 nights with restless broken sleep, a complete lack of appetite, nausea and occasional vomiting when I did try to eat, and extreme irritability. After about the fourth day most the symptoms would have dissipated, but those first few days weren’t ever pleasant.

            It’s not like caffeine or opium because caffeine or opium aren’t even like each other and very rarely do to different drugs have the same withdrawal effects.

  8. this is a bit of misdirection on the White houses part.  The issues has not really been about  busting users in CA.  it is busting the places where they go to legally  purchase it.  I will believe that we are past this issue when that stops. I sadly expect it to start in Co and Wa shortly

    1. This situation is a little different, though. If anyone can legally sell weed then the DEA has very little chance of making a significant impact on the marijuana trade if they have no support from local law enforcement. They just don’t have the manpower to handle street-level busts.

  9. Can’t the executive branch simply remove marijuana from the list of schedule I drugs? That would essentially kick the issue to the states. No more of this “not a priority” doublespeak.

    1. I think at this point we’ve tied our own hands by signing the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs in 1961. Essentially we took control of our own hands and placed in the hands of international bodies. 

      1. If I understand correctly many if not most ‘international bodies’ have banned cannabis (often against better judgement and cultural traditions), because the US pressured them to do so…

  10. We don’t “need to have … a conversation about…”. We need our President to decide on, clearly state, and instate an updated enforcement policy.

    P.S. Had a celebratory first legal smoke last night with four housemates here in Colorado. Curtains wide open. It actually feels different not to have to hide anything.

  11. Problem is state cops do what they want like in California and bust people regardless of what Obama does.

  12. When the President says “we’re supposed to be carrying out laws” there is just a whiff of insincerity to that. DOMA is a (god awful) law, yet the executive branch is no longer defending it in court challenges. While it’s not quite the same, it still shows that presidential policy does guide which “laws” get more attention.

    Perhaps our good president could normalize his approach by “not defending” The Drug Enforcement act when it faces a 10th amendment challenge. Because clearly there is no interstate commerce for a product grown, prepared, and consumed in the same state, and in such cases state law should supersede federal law. However I think it’s more likely that any president would rather look like a fool and a hypocrite than willingly ceed power from the federal governments to the states.

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