WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama says that federal law enforcement agencies have "bigger fish to fry" than prosecuting marijuana users in Colorado and Washington, which voted in November to legalize the recreational use of marijuana.
Obama made explicit in an interview to air Friday on ABC News that prosecution of marijuana users in the two states would be placed low on his Justice Department's list of law enforcement priorities, but that certain issues must still be ironed out as more states could pass similar legislation.
"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?"
In a statement Monday, U.S. Attorney John Walsh said that the Department of Justice is "reviewing" the initiatives passed in both states and that the department's "responsibility to enforce the Controlled Substances Act remains unchanged.'
"Regardless of any changes in state law, including the change that will go into effect on December 10 in Colorado, growing, selling or possessing any amount of marijuana remains illegal under federal law," Walsh said.
The Justice Department is familiar with negotiating contradictory state and federal laws on marijuana. Aside from the two states that have legalized recreational use of marijuana, 18 states and the District of Columbia have allowed legal use of the drug for medical reasons.
Marijuana is listed as a Schedule I drug by the Drug Enforcement Agency, meaning it's dangerous and has no medical use. Other Schedule I drugs include heroin, ecstasy, and psychedelic mushrooms. Medical marijuana advocates say it should be listed under Schedule II, comparing it to other prescription painkillers that have a high potential for abuse.
In California alone, more than 1,000 medical marijuana dispensaries are in business, employing thousands and providing state and local governments as much as $105 million in taxes each year.
But federal prosecutors are getting tougher. Last year, law enforcement agents seized 3.9 million plants in the Golden State and were poised to collect more this year.
Marijuana advocates say the attack collides with California's law and goes against a campaign promise by Obama to not circumvent the state's relaxed rules.
A USA Today/Gallup poll conducted after November's election indicted 64 percent of Americans felt the federal government should not take steps to enforce federal anti-marijuana laws in states where it has been made legal for recreational use.
A Quinnipiac University poll conducted between November 28 and December 3 showed 51 percent of registered voters nationwide thought marijuana should be made legal in the United States, compared to 44 percent who thought it should remain illegal.
(CNNMoney's Jose Paliery contributed to this report.)