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In an interview with ABC’s Barbara Walters, President Obama made his first statement on how his administration will react to ballot measures that legalized the recreational use of marijuana in Colorado and Washington.

“We’ve got bigger fish to fry,” Obama said. “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.”

Marijuana remains illegal under federal law. Given the administration’s surprisingly strident stance that’s led to cracking down on medical marijuana dispensaries, which are also legal due to state ballot measures, many feared the attorney general might sue to establish the continued illegality of the drug.

“This is a tough problem, because Congress has not yet changed the law,” Obama said. “I head up the executive branch; we’re supposed to be carrying out laws. And 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 say that it’s legal?”

The president does have the ability to prioritize enforcement as he has with immigration, granting a semi-legal status to students who would be eligible for a path to citizenship under the DREAM Act, which passed the House and was blocked in the Senate by a filibuster.

“I want to discourage drug use,” the president added. He also said that he would not support federal legalization of marijuana “at this point.”

The country is split about evenly on the broad question of legalization but a recent poll showed that a vast majority of Americans believe that the federal government should not prevent Colorado and Washington from allowing recreational use of the drug.

If the states are to act as laboratories of democracy, we may soon find out if regulating marijuana as we do alcohol may be more effective than prosecuting users.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

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