WASHINGTON — A day after Washington state joined Colorado in selling marijuana in retail outlets, the Obama administration on Wednesday criticized drug legalization and warned that a declining perception of risk is leading more U.S. teens to smoke pot.
In a report to Congress, the White House drug czar's office said it wants to spend $25 billion next year as part of a broad drug-fighting plan, including more on treatment for people addicted to heroin and prescription painkillers. It described the abuse of opioids as a national epidemic.
"We cannot leave people behind," said Michael Botticelli, the acting drug czar and Obama's new top drug adviser, who announced the administration's 2014 national drug control strategy during a visit to Roanoke, Va.
The report urged Americans not to stigmatize those who are addicted to drugs but to make sure they're informed of the risks of drug use.
"And we must seek to avoid oversimplified debates between the idea of a war on drugs and the notion of legalization as a panacea," the report said, calling it a "false choice."
Groups backing marijuana legalization criticized the plan.
"The drug czar's office is still tone deaf when it comes to marijuana policy. … Legalizing and regulating marijuana is not a panacea, but it is sound policy," said Mason Tvert, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project.
Calling marijuana use among young people a "serious challenge," the federal report said the challenges have "gained prominence" with the decision by voters in Washington state and Colorado in 2012 to legalize the recreational use of marijuana for adults 21 and older.
Colorado began its sales on Jan. 1, and Washington state on Tuesday. The Obama administration gave the green light to the experiments in August, saying it wouldn't interfere if the states do a good job policing themselves.
Opponents of legalization applauded the new report.
"I think it is very reassuring," said Kevin Sabet, who heads Project SAM, Smart Approaches to Marijuana. "It shows that this White House is still very uncomfortable with the notion of legalization, and I think it signals that they aren't too thrilled with how things have panned out in Colorado. "
In a letter to Congress, Obama said millions of Americans will be able to get drug treatment paid by insurance companies as part of the health care law passed by Congress in 2010.
But he said more must be done to fight illicit drug use, which he said is linked to disease, crime, highway accidents and lower academic performance.