SAN FRANCISCO — President Barack Obama says he won't go after pot users in Colorado and Washington, two states that just legalized the drug for recreational use. But advocates argue the president said the same thing about medical marijuana — and yet U.S. attorneys continue to force the closure of dispensaries across the U.S.
Welcome to the confusing and often conflicting policy on pot in the U.S., where medical marijuana is legal in many states, but it is increasingly difficult to grow, distribute or sell it. And at the federal level, at least officially, it is still an illegal drug everywhere.
Obama's statement Friday provided little clarity in a world where marijuana is inching ever so carefully toward legitimacy.
That conflict is perhaps the greatest in California, where the state's four U.S. Attorneys criminally prosecuted large growers and launched a coordinated crackdown on the state's medical marijuana industry last year by threatening landlords with property forfeiture actions. Hundreds of pot shops went out of business.
Steve DeAngelo, executive director of an Oakland, Calif., dispensary that claims to be the nation's largest, called for a federal policy that treats recreational and medical uses of the drug equally.
"If we're going to recognize the rights of recreational users, then we should certainly protect the rights of medical cannabis patients who legally access the medicine their doctors have recommended," he said.
The government is planning to soon release policies for dealing with marijuana in Colorado and Washington, where federal law still prohibits pot, as elsewhere in the country.
"It would be nice to get something concrete to follow," said William Osterhoudt, a San Francisco criminal defense attorney representing government officials in Mendocino County who recently received a demand from federal investigators for detailed information about a local system for licensing growers of medical marijuana.
Assemblyman Tom Ammiano said he was frustrated by Obama's comments because the federal government continues to shutter dispensaries in states with medical marijuana laws, including California.
"A good step here would be to stop raiding those legal dispensaries who are doing what they are allowed to do by law," said the San Francisco Democrat. "There's a feeling that the federal government has gone rogue on hundreds of legal, transparent medical marijuana dispensaries, so there's this feeling of them being in limbo. And it puts the patients, the businesses and the advocates in a very untenable place."
Obama, in an interview with ABC's Barbara Walters, said Friday that federal authorities have "bigger fish to fry" when it comes to targeting recreational pot smokers in Colorado and Washington.
Some advocates said the statement showed the president's willingness to allow residents of states with marijuana laws to use the drug without fear of federal prosecution.
"It's a tremendous step forward," said Joe Elford, general counsel for Americans for Safe Access. "It suggests the feds are taking seriously enough the idea that there should be a carve-out for states with marijuana laws."
Obama's statements on recreational use mirror the federal policy toward states that allow marijuana use for medical purposes.