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Obama’s Smoky Little Fish

When a president does not want to deal with an inconvenient or embarrassing issue, he will sometimes convene an outside panel whose advice he can ignore. (See: Obama, deficits; Obama, unemployment.)

Other times, the commander-in-chief simply suggests that the matter in question is not worth his presidential time, or that there is nothing he can do unless Congress acts first. (See: Obama, Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac.)

When it comes to managing the growing conflict between federal and state policies on marijuana, President Obama – who is no stranger to the weed, or to the hypocrisy and caprice with which the law treats its users – takes the latter approach. In an interview with Barbara Walters last week, Obama said resolving the clash between state and federal marijuana laws is not a high priority for his administration, regardless of how millions of pot aficionados may feel.

“We’ve got bigger fish to fry,” he said of recreational marijuana users in Colorado and Washington, where voters recently opted to legalize the drug.

This is the same president who decided, on his own, to overhaul the way immigration laws are applied to certain groups, notably young people. And though the administration continues to enforce the Defense of Marriage Act, the executive branch did at least declare it would no longer defend the law in court.

Obama, like all presidents, prefers to pick his own fights. And like all presidents in the past four decades, he emphatically does not want to pick a fight with the web of federal, state and local law enforcers who make much of their living in the futile attempt to block recreational marijuana use. The hypocrisy keeps mounting, as at least the past three presidents have all used marijuana themselves, and probably none more than Obama, who is known to have been a member of the “Choom Gang” in his high school days. (“Choom” was local slang for pot.)

Despite his scorn for the smallness of the marijuana issue, there is no sign that the president has told his Justice Department, its staff of federal prosecutors, or the Drug Enforcement Administration to back off prosecutions in order to conserve resources for more important matters. In stark contrast to his position on immigration, the president insists that when it comes to marijuana, the law is the law.

Going after individual users has never been federal policy, but the DEA has aggressively pursued medical marijuana dispensaries in California, which are legal on the state level. Large-scale growers and distributors in Colorado and Washington run the same risk until either Congress changes the law or the courts rule that federal power to regulate intrastate marijuana traffic is limited.

Matthew Yglesias, a political blogger for Slate, observed that, “As a matter of institutional culture, getting the DEA to back off is like trying to get a dog to not run after squirrels.” This is especially true when the president refuses to keep the DEA on a leash.

Obama told Walters that, “at this point,” he still does not support general legalization, despite his own history with the drug. Attorney General Eric Holder said last week that the Justice Department will announce a policy on the conflict between state and federal law “relatively soon.” That is, as with the president’s evolved position on gay rights, just as soon as it is clear which way the political winds are blowing.

Obama and his administration do have bigger fish to fry. But there’s room in the pan for this one too, if they want to squeeze it in.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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