3 Reasons Not to Take Obama's Pot Prosecution Comments Too Seriously

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The president says the government has bigger fish to fry than small-time smokers, but that doesn't mean it's safe to get baked.

Is it time to break out the bong and have a high time? 

The big question since two states passed laws legalizing marijuana for non-medical use on November 6 has been how the federal government would respond. And thus far it's been silent -- until Friday. Here's what President Obama told Barbara Walters: "We've got bigger fish to fry ... 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."

That's set off some celebration. My colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates offers some (tempered) praise, writing, "This is typical Obama, and about what I would expect -- carving out an argument that attempts to appeal to the most people while not interfering with Washington and Colorado." So does Andrew Sullivan, who was apoplectic about this just days ago. But I'm not so sure that pot smokers, legalization advocates, and states' rights champions should be celebrating yet, for three reasons.

1. The Administration Talks the Talk, But ... Not long after the Obama Administration came in, the Justice Department very noisily made clear with a guidance memo that while the president certainly didn't think it was a good idea to legalize weed -- he literally laughed at it when asked -- there was no way the federal government was going to spend its meager resources during a recession on busting California distributors of medical marijuana. But as Alex Seitz-Wald notes, the feds did just that. U.S. Attorneys launched a series of raids against dispensaries, and then Washington reversed its original guidance.

2. Talking About Individuals Misses the Point. So the guy sitting in his basement toking up and watching DVDs of Planet Earth can breathe easy (although perhaps with a persistent cough). But the federal government was never going after him anyway, and he's always been able to buy pot in small quantities. What's revolutionary about the laws passed last month is that they change (at least in theory) the rest of the distribution system. Matt Yglesias explains:

Colorado and Washington didn't legalize recreational marijuana use. They set up a framework for legal marijuana cultivation, for marijuana processing, and for wholesale and retail sales of marijuana .... The actual question on the table isn't whether the federal government is going to be able to replace state and local law enforcement, the question is whether the federal government will do everything in its power to subvert the new frameworks in CO and WA. The president's statement to Walters is entirely consistent with a posture of maximum subversion.

3. Most Importantly, This Isn't an Official Statement of Policy. Why take all this time analyzing a statement so carefully calculated to reveal little? There's not much reason to tune into until the Justice Department actually makes a public announcement about how it intends to deal with Colorado and Washington. A spokesperson at the Justice Department said Friday afternoon, with a verbal eyeroll, that the fuss was unwarranted. "The legislation in Colorado and Washington is still under review by the Department of Justice and as it stands marijuana is still a Schedule 1 drug." And that's the most important thing for now.

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David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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