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Obama on pot laws: 'We've got bigger fish to fry'

Nick Adams / Reuters

Marijuana is broken up for use by customers at Frankie Sports Bar and Grill in Olympia, Wash., on Sunday.

Pot smokers in Washington and Colorado are inhaling a little easier after President Barack Obama said the federal government has more important things to do than go after "recreational" drug users in states that legalize marijuana.

"We've got bigger fish to fry," Obama told ABC News' Barbara Walters.

He was weighing in on the issue for the first time since voters in the two states approved initiatives to legalize the recreational use of marijuana – which is still a crime under federal law.

Obama admitted this disconnect between federal and local laws had put him in a tough spot.

"I head up the executive branch. We're supposed to be carrying out laws," he said. "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?"

The Justice Department is still looking into how to handle the conflict. But in the meantime, Obama suggested, the feds aren't gearing up for what might be a costly, unpopular crackdown on tokers in Colorado and Washington.


Related: Americans to feds -- Keep your hands off our pot

"You've seen the voters speak on this issue. And as it is, the federal government has a lot to do when it comes to criminal prosecutions," he said.

"It would not make sense for us to see a top priority as going after recreational users in states that have determined that it's legal."

The president’s comments on the new Colorado and Washington laws echo the stand he took on medical marijuana during the 2008 campaign, when he said prosecutions would be a low priority.

Related: So where will all that 'legal' pot come from?

Two years later, though, federal authorities toughened up that stance, announcing that dispensaries and growers in 18 states that have legalized medical marijuana could be charged with violating drug and money-laundering laws. Dozens of medical marijuana collectives have been ordered shut since then.

Washington State's new law makes it legal for adults to possess up to one ounce of marijuana, but some speculate the federal government will prosecute those who use marijuana on federal land because federal law prohibits marijuana use. NBC's Kristen Dahlgren reports.

Federal prosecutors have not sounded as relaxed as Obama about new state legalization efforts.

Hours before the law in her state went into effect, the U.S. attorney in Washington, Jenny Durkan, issued a warning that "growing, selling or possessing any amount of marijuana remains illegal under federal law."

Related: Like Amsterdam, Washington bar owner lets patrons get stoned

Ezra Klein explains how reclassifying marijuana to a lesser category can reduce some of the tension between federal law prohibiting the drug and new state laws allowing its use medicinally or in small quantities.

Obama – who revealed in his 1995 memoir that he was a regular pot smoker in high school -- said he doesn't back wider legalization of marijuana "at this point." And he wanted to nip in the bud any suggestion that he's pro-weed.

"There are a bunch of things I did that I regret when I was a kid," Obama said in excerpts of the interview, which airs Friday on "20/20."

"My attitude is, substance abuse generally is not good for our kids, not good for our society," he said. "I want to discourage drug use."

Related: Feds fire warning shot over pot legalization

Obama was frank about his youthful drug use in his best-selling book, "Dreams from My Father."

"I blew a few smoke rings, remembering those years. Pot had helped, and booze; maybe a little blow when you could afford it. Not smack, though," he wrote.

"Junkie. Pothead. That's where I'd been headed: the final, fatal role of the young would-be black man."

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