WASHINGTON - President Obama said recreational users of marijuana in Colorado and Washington should not be a "top priority" of federal law enforcement officials prosecuting the war on drugs.
"We've got bigger fish to fry," Obama said in an exclusive interview with ABC News' Barbara Walters.
"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," he said, invoking the same approach taken toward users of medicinal marijuana in 18 states where it's legal.
Obama's comments on marijuana are his first following Colorado and Washington voters' approval of Nov. 7 ballot measures that legalize the recreational use and sale of pot in defiance of federal law.
Colorado governor John Hickenlooper signed an executive order on Monday making Amendment 64 part of the state's constitution. It was a procedural step that means marijuana is effectively legal for recreational use in Colorado. Adults over 21 may now possess up to an ounce of marijuana, or six plants. However, it is still illegal under state law to buy or sell marijuana in any quantity or to consume it in public.
Marijuana, or cannabis, remains classified under the Controlled Substances Act as a Schedule I narcotic whose cultivation, distribution, possession and use are criminal acts. It's in the same category as heroin, LSD and "Ecstasy," all deemed to have high potential for abuse, ABC News reported.
"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 said he has asked Attorney General Eric Holder and the Justice Department to examine the legal questions surrounding conflicting state and federal laws on drugs.
"There are a number of issues that have to be considered, among them the impact that drug usage has on young people, [and] we have treaty obligations with nations outside the United States," Holder said Wednesday of the review underway.
Colorado congresswoman Diane DeGette (D) has introduced new federal legislation that would allow states to pass their own laws on controlled substances.
DeGette said the Respect States' and Citizens' Rights Act would ensure that state laws regarding marijuana will not be preempted by the federal government.
Colorado's Republican Attorney General has promised to help implement the pro-marijuana law passed by Colorado voters.
"Despite my strongly held belief that the 'legalization' of marijuana on a state level is very bad public policy, voters can be assured that the Attorney General’s Office will move forward in assisting the pertinent executive branch agencies to implement this new provision in the Colorado Constitution," Attorney General John Suthers said in a statement.
Suthers said he would ask the United States Department of Justice to make known its intentions regarding prosecution of activities sanctioned by Amendment 64, particularly large wholesale grow operations.
As a politician, Obama has always opposed legalizing marijuana and downplayed his personal history with the substance.
Obama wrote in his 1995 memoir, "Dreams from My Father," that he would smoke pot regularly with his high school buddies who formed a "club of disaffection."
"There are a bunch of things I did that I regret when I was a kid," Obama told Walters. "My attitude is, substance abuse generally is not good for our kids, not good for our society.
"I want to discourage drug use," he added.
Read more of the President's interview with Barbara Walters on ABCNews.com.