WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and a key Senate Democrat said Friday they are willing to consider relaxing federal enforcement of the laws against marijuana for those who possess small amounts of the drug.
They were reacting to new voter-approved laws in Washington state and Colorado that permit recreational users to have an ounce of marijuana at home. In addition, 18 other states now permit the medical use of marijuana.
Despite this state-by-state move toward limited legalization, federal law still classifies marijuana as a highly dangerous drug and makes it a crime to sell or possess even tiny amounts.
"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 it's legal?" Obama told ABC News in an interview with Barbara Walters.
The president said he is not ready "at this point" to support widespread legalization of marijuana, but added: "It would not make sense for us to see a top priority as going after recreational users in states that have determined it's legal. We've got bigger fish to fry."
Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said his panel would consider legislation next year that could ease federal law for marijuana possession.
Leahy said Obama's comments "reflect common sense. In a time of tight budget constraints, I want law enforcement to focus on violent crime. But now that we have a gap between federal and state laws on marijuana, we need more information and a wider discussion about where our priorities should be."
Obama said he has a duty to follow the law as it now exists. "I head up the executive branch. We're supposed to be carrying out the laws," he told ABC.