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.
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 comment 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.
Federal prosecutors haven't 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. "There is a conflict between federal law and state law on this issue, we need to continue to work through that.”
Legalization activists in Colorado tried and failed to get the president to take a stand on the marijuana measure on his many campaign trips to the battleground state.
"It was frustrating," said Joe Megyesy, a spokesman for Colorado marijuana legalization group.
"Here's the president, an admitted marijuana user in his youth, who's previously shown strong support for this, and then he didn't want to touch it because it was such a close race.”
Megyesy said Obama's comments were "good news," but left unanswered many questions about how marijuana regulation will work. Even if individual users aren't charged with crimes, marijuana producers and sellers could be subject to prosecution and civil forfeiture and other legal roadblocks. Marijuana is a crop that can't be insured, and federal drug law prevents banks from knowingly serving the industry, leaving it a cash-only business that's difficult to regulate.
Possession of up to an ounce of marijuana is now legal for adults over 21 in both Washington and Colorado.
Washington's Liquor Control Board, which has been regulating alcohol for 78 years, now has a year to adopt rules for the fledgling pot industry.
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.
The votes in Washington and Colorado were just the latest developments in the debate over marijuana use in the United States.
Under a law that takes effect April 1, adults in Rhode Island caught with an ounce or less of marijuana would face a $150 civil fine and a state representative has said she plans to re-introduce legislation to legalize marijuana. Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin and many lawmakers are pushing for decriminalization in that state.
Before the law took effect, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said he expected the state to be sued by the federal government and that the case would likely end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.
State school superintendent Randy Dorn warned this week that school districts had reported an increase in pot possession and use on school property since voters passed the law last month. He said that could put schools in jeopardy of losing federal education funds.