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Marijuana: White House finally discusses pot -- but not Colorado weed laws

Members of the Colorado marijuana scene have been waiting since election day for the federal government to definitively state its position on Amendment 64. Instead, the White House has been largely silent on the topic of pot for the better part of a year -- until yesterday, when deputy press secretary Josh Earnest, seen here, was finally prodding into addressing the subject. Unfortunately, as you'll see in one of the videos on view below, he said nothing of substance and didn't specifically mention Colorado -- something that frustrates at least one national weed advocate.

In a post-election conference call with Attorney General Eric Holder, Governor John Hickenlooper and Colorado Attorney General John Suthers stressed urgency regarding the feds' plans to deal with A64 -- but urgency isn't what they got. In March, Holder said a decision on a federal response would be coming soon, but more than five months later, nothing has been announced.

President Barack Obama speaking to Barbara Walters this past December.
President Barack Obama speaking to Barbara Walters this past December.
Photo by Pete Souza

As for President Barack Obama, the only time he's spoken at length about marijuana in a public forum since A64's passage was a December interview with Barbara Walters. Here's a breakdown of what he said, from our original post about his comments:

Regarding legalization, Obama says he's against it "at this point." But neither does it make sense to him to make expend lots of resources going after a Coloradan with an ounce of weed, saying, "We've got bigger fish to fry."

Obama adds that finding a balance between the new measures in Colorado and Washington and current federal policy is "a tough problem, because Congress has not yet changed the law. 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?"

None of these observations is new, and Obama reportedly gives no hints about which way Attorney General Eric Holder and the Justice Department are leaning when it comes to what's characterized as an ongoing review.

"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," he says.

When asked about his own marijuana usage during his youth, he says, "There are a bunch of things I did that I regret when I was a kid. My attitude is, substance abuse generally is not good for our kids, not good for our society.... I want to discourage drug use," including by his own daughters.

Here's a clip featuring some of Obama's remarks.

Cut to Tuesday, when the following exchange took place at a White House press briefing overseen by Earnest:

Q Before going to Martha's Vineyard, Sanjay Gupta had an interesting column in CNN about marijuana -- changed his mind. He had been at one point considered by the President to be the surgeon general pick a number of years ago. I'm wondering if the White House has any reaction to that column and also if the President has been personally looking at that issue, given that the country -- the polls on marijuana have changed quite a bit since he took office in favor of legalization. Is there any change in his sort of outlook on it?

MR. EARNEST: Steve, when I called on you I don't think I could ever have predicted that this was the question you were going to ask me. (Laughter.) So I really was into the potpourri category of questions for this one. I have to confess I did not see the Sanjay Gupta column that you're referring to, so it's hard for me to comment on it at this point. So I'll have to take the question.

Gupta's column, " Why I changed my mind on weed ," and a subsequent documentary concisely entitled WEED , have a significant Colorado connection.

Continue for more about the White House's discussion of marijuana, including more photos and two videos.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta in a preview image from "WEED."
Dr. Sanjay Gupta in a preview image from "WEED."

At the center of WEED is the story of Charlotte Figi, a young Coloradan with Dravet Syndrome, an uncommon, and serious, form of epilepsy in which a cellular mutation causes clusters of seizures, some of which last more than half an hour. As Charlotte's mom, Paige Figi, told us in advance of the doc's airing, the ailment had proven to be virtually untreatable until she and her husband decided to try a regimen featuring cannabis oil.

The oil, given to Charlotte in "an olive-oil extraction right under the tongue," doesn't have "a psychoactive effect," Paige stressed -- but it had an incredible impact on her beloved daughter. "It's helped everything," she told us. "She has over 99 percent seizure control. She doesn't use her feeding tube anymore; she was 100 percent tube-fed before. She doesn't have her autistic behavior anymore, and she doesn't have severe sleep disorders. She can walk -- she's not in her wheelchair at all -- and she's talking. She couldn't talk before, and now she's talking. It's been a totally life-changing event, totally life-changing medicine."

This example of marijuana's medical effectiveness, among others, convinced Gupta, once a cannabis doubter, to become an advocate for its use under certain circumstances. And Gupta is much respected in the White House: As you'll recall, he was under heavy consideration to become the U.S. Surgeon General until taking himself out of consideration for the position in March 2009.

Charlotte before she began taking cannabis oil treatments.
Charlotte before she began taking cannabis oil treatments.

Nonetheless, when deputy press secretary Earnest answered the marijuana question at yesterday's briefing, he rigidly stuck to the talking points of Obama's comments to Walters. As reported by Politico, he said, "The president does not at this point support a change in the law" regarding broader legalization," adding, "While the prosecution of drug traffickers remains an important priority, the president and the administration believe that targeting individual marijuana users -- especially those with serious illnesses and their caregivers -- is not the best allocation of federal law enforcement resources."

To Tom Angell, founder of Marijuana Majority and a close observer of the Colorado cannabis world, Earnest's words were disappointing. Corresponding with Westword via e-mail, he writes, "The White House's statement that the president doesn't think it's a good use of resources to go after individual marijuana users is virtually meaningless. It has never been a federal priority to go after users. The real question is if the president wants to allow the voter-approved systems for regulated marijuana sales to be implemented or if he wants to intervene and force those users to keep buying marijuana on the black market from violent drug cartels and gangs. Pew, Gallup and other polls show that a super-majority of voters wants the president to follow through on his 2008 campaign pledge to respect state marijuana laws, and that's exactly what he should do.

Below, see a Politico video featuring Earnest's full response, followed by a CNN preview for WEED.

More from our Marijuana archive: "Meet Paige Figi, whose daughter helped change CNN doc Sanjay Gupta's mind about weed."


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