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 generally 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.
Washington's Governor-elect Jay Inslee said Obama's statement didn't answer some key questions, but makes for a positive start to state operations.
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.
"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, "said Joe Megyesy, a spokesman for Colorado marijuana legalization group.
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, has a year to adopt rules for the fledgling pot industry.
Spokesman Mikhail Carpenter said Obama's comments provide clarification on the issue, but won't change how the board is moving forward because they are already well into the process.
Carpenter said that the rulemaking process on producer licenses began last week. Public hearings will start sometime in April.
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.
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.