WASHINGTON — Figuring out where the Obama administration stands on marijuana is starting to get as confusing as remembering which one is Cheech and which one is Chong.
The White House-run Office of National Drug Control Policy considers marijuana a dangerous and harmful drug. And the Drug Enforcement Administration labels it a top-tier illegal drug under federal law.
But President Barack Obama, an acknowledged pot smoker in his younger days, recently told The New Yorker magazine that he doesn't see marijuana as any more dangerous than alcohol and said it was "important" that the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington state go forward.
So what is the government's position? Members of Congress pressed Michael Botticelli, deputy director of the drug-control agency, on that question Tuesday during a House hearing.
"The administration continues to oppose attempts legalize marijuana and other drugs," Botticelli told a House Oversight subcommittee.
The panel's chairman, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., described the administration's position on marijuana as "schizophrenic" with the drug control policy office and the DEA clearly being against legalization while the president has been far more permissive in his statements.
Obama has yet to give a full-throated endorsement to the two states' legalization. He told The New Yorker "it's important for it to go forward because it's important for society not to have a situation in which a large portion of people have at one time or another broken the law and only a select few get punished." He also has been quick to say that he doesn't think smoking marijuana is a good idea.
James Capra, chief of operations for the DEA, told a Senate panel last month that "going down the path to legalization in this country is reckless and irresponsible."
The Justice Department issued a policy memo last year that essentially pledges to steer clear of state-legal marijuana businesses as long as they follow a series of strict guidelines. While the memo doesn't give carte blanche to would-be marijuana entrepreneurs, it was received as an encouraging development by the growing legal pot market.
Attorney General Eric Holder also has pledged to issue new guidance to federally regulated banks on how to deal with profits from these businesses. Current law makes it illegal for such banks to handle cash related to pot or other illegal drug businesses.
Capra stopped short of calling out the administration for its easing of marijuana enforcement but wasn't subtle in his comments to the Senate Caucus on International Drug Control.
"I'm talking about the long-term impact of legalization in the United States. It scares us," Capra said. "The treatment people are afraid, the education people are afraid. Law enforcement is worried what is going to happen. In every part of the world where this experiment has been tried, it has failed, time and time again."
Some lawmakers have worried that easing enforcement of federal marijuana laws will allow criminals into the market. Botticelli referred such questions to the Justice Department but insisted that the administration has been consistent on its stand against legal pot.
Mica and other Republicans disagreed.
"We've gone from 'just say no,' then we had 'I didn't inhale,' and now we have 'just say maybe' or 'just go ahead,' Mica lamented.