By KRISTEN WYATT
SEATTLE — Backers of new laws that legalized marijuana in Washington and Colorado were cautiously optimistic after President Barack Obama said Uncle Sam wouldn’t pursue pot users in those states.
Following the November votes in Washington and Colorado, the Justice Department reiterated that marijuana remains illegal under federal law, but had been vague about what its specific response would be.
In a Barbara Walters interview airing Friday on ABC, President Barack Obama said: “It does not make sense from a prioritization point of view” to focus on drug use in states where it is now legal.
Marijuana activists were relieved at Obama’s comments, but still had questions about how regulation will work.
They said even if individual users aren’t charged with crimes, marijuana producers and sellers could be subject to prosecution, civil forfeiture and other legal roadblocks.
And the president didn’t specifically address how the federal government would respond to state officials in Washington and Colorado, who under the new laws are now tasked with coming up with regulations for commercial pot sales. Possession of up to an ounce of marijuana is legal for adults over 21 in both states.
Obama simply told Walters that going after “recreational users” would not be a “top priority.”
“There’s some signal of hope,” Alison Holcomb, who led Washington’s legalization drive, said of Obama’s statements. “I think it’s correct that we ultimately we need a legislative resolution.”
But Tom Angell of the group Marijuana Majority said Obama’s comments don’t add anything new. He said the federal government rarely goes after users and Obama can do more besides passing the responsibility to Congress. Angell said Obama can use executive power to reclassify marijuana as a legal drug.
Marijuana opponents were also unsatisfied with Obama’s statement.
“How about the president exercise some leadership here? They can either enforce the federal law or change the law. Right now this doesn’t give us a whole lot,” said Republican state Rep. Mark Waller in Colorado, a legalization opponent.
Colorado’s Democratic governor, who made legalization official with an executive order earlier this week, also said Obama’s statements didn’t settle questions about regulating pot.
“If the Justice Department and the president come together and together release a statement along those lines, it would certainly give us some clarity,” Gov. John Hickenlooper said.
Federal prosecutors haven’t generally targeted users in the 18 states and Washington, D.C. that allow people to use marijuana for medical reasons.
However, federal agents have still cracked down on dozens of dispensaries in some of those states.
Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., said Obama’s statements weren’t definitive but were encouraging.
“I think the president’s comments are a good sign that the federal government might be willing to work with our state as we work to develop a new regulatory model for marijuana,” she said.
Washington’s Liquor Control Board, which has been regulating alcohol for 78 years, has a year to adopt rules for the fledgling pot industry.
Spokesman Mikhail Carpenter said Obama’s comments provide clarification on the issue, but won’t change how the board is moving forward because they are already well into the process.
Carpenter said that the rulemaking process on producer licenses began last week. Public hearings will start sometime in April.
Colorado’s marijuana measure requires lawmakers to allow commercial pot sales, and a state task force that will begin writing those regulations meets Monday.
Wyatt and Associated Press writer Ivan Moreno contributed from Denver. Associated Press Writer Rachel La Corte contributed from Olympia, Wash.