SAN FRANCISCO - President Barack Obama told Barbara Walters that he wouldn't go after marijuana users in Colorado or Washington, states that have made the drug legal. But advocates argue the president said the same thing about medical marijuana -- and yet U.S. attorneys continue to force the closure of dispensaries across the U.S.
In the U.S., medical marijuana is legal in many states, but it is increasingly difficult to grow, distribute or sell it. And at the federal level, at least officially, it is still an illegal drug everywhere.
Obama's statement Friday provided little clarity in a world where marijuana is inching ever so carefully toward legitimacy.
That conflict is perhaps the greatest in California, where the state's four U.S. Attorneys criminally prosecuted large growers and launched a coordinated crackdown on the state's medical marijuana industry last year by threatening landlords with property forfeiture actions. Hundreds of pot shops went out of business.
Steve DeAngelo, executive director of an Oakland, California, dispensary that claims to be the nation's largest, called for a federal policy that treats recreational and medical uses of the drug equally.
"If we're going to recognize the rights of recreational users, then we should certainly protect the rights of medical cannabis patients who legally access the medicine their doctors have recommended," he said.
The government is planning to soon release policies for dealing with marijuana in Colorado and Washington state, where federal law still prohibits pot, as elsewhere in the country.
"It would be nice to get something concrete to follow," said William Osterhoudt, a San Francisco criminal defense attorney representing government officials in Mendocino County who recently received a demand from federal investigators for detailed information about a local system for licensing growers of medical marijuana.
State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano said he was frustrated by Obama's comments because the federal government continues to shutter dispensaries in states with medical marijuana laws, including California.
"A good step here would be to stop raiding those legal dispensaries who are doing what they are allowed to do by law," said the San Francisco Democrat. "There's a feeling that the federal government has gone rogue on hundreds of legal, transparent medical marijuana dispensaries, so there's this feeling of them being in limbo. And it puts the patients, the businesses and the advocates in a very untenable place."
Obama, in an interview with ABC television's Barbara Walters, said Friday that federal authorities have "bigger fish to fry" when it comes to targeting recreational pot smokers in Colorado and Washington state.
Some advocates said the statement showed the president's willingness to allow residents of states with marijuana laws to use the drug without fear of federal prosecution.
"It's a tremendous step forward," said Joe Elford, general counsel for Americans for Safe Access. "It suggests the feds are taking seriously enough the idea that there should be a carve-out for states with marijuana laws."
Obama's statements on recreational use mirror the federal policy toward states that allow marijuana use for medical purposes.
"We are not focusing on backyard grows with small amounts of marijuana for use by seriously ill people," said Lauren Horwood, a spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner in Sacramento. "We are targeting money-making commercial growers and distributors who use the trappings of state law as cover, but they are actually abusing state law."
Alison Holcomb, who led the legalization drive in Washington state, said she doesn't expect Obama's comment to prompt the federal government to treat recreational marijuana and medical marijuana differently.
"At this point, what the president is looking at is a response to marijuana in general. The federal government has never recognized the difference between medical and non-medical marijuana," she said. "I don't think this is the time he'd carve out separate policies. I think he's looking for a more comprehensive response."
Washington state voters approved a medical marijuana law in 1998, and dispensaries have proliferated across the state in recent years.
Last year, Gov. Chris Gregoire vetoed legislation that would have created a state system for licensing medical dispensaries over concern that it would require state workers to violate the federal Controlled Substances Act.
For the most part, dispensaries in western Washington state have been left alone. But federal authorities did conduct raids earlier this year on dispensaries they said were acting outside the state law, such as selling marijuana to non-patients. Warning letters have been sent to dispensaries that operate too close to schools.
"What we've seen is enforcement of civil laws and warnings, with a handful of arrests of people who were operating outside state law," said Holcomb, who also helped write the bill that Gregoire vetoed.
Eastern Washington has seen more raids because the U.S. attorney there is more active, Holcomb added.
Colorado's marijuana measure requires lawmakers to allow commercial pot sales, and a state task force that will begin writing those regulations meets Monday.
State officials have reached out to the Justice Department seeking help on regulating a new legal marijuana industry but haven't heard back.
DeAngelo said Friday that the Justice Department should freeze all pending enforcement actions against legal medical cannabis providers and review its policies to make sure they're consistent with the president's position. He estimated federal officials have shuttered 600 dispensaries in the state and 1,000 nationwide.
DeAngelo's Harborside Health Center is facing eviction after the U.S. attorney in San Francisco pressured his landlord to stop harboring what the government considers an illegal business.
"While it's nice to hear these sorts of positive words from the president, we are facing efforts by the Justice Department to shut us down, so it's hard for me to take them seriously," DeAngelo said.
The dispensary has a hearing Thursday in federal court on the matter.
Associated Press writers Terry Collins in San Francisco and Manuel Valdes in Seattle contributed to this report.