WASHINGTON -- The White House said Thursday it expects law enforcement agents to enforce federal marijuana laws when they come into conflict with states where recreational use of the drug is permitted -- including Colorado.
"I do believe you will see greater enforcement of it," White House press secretary Sean Spicer said regarding federal drug laws, which still list marijuana as an illegal substance.
That's a reversal from the Obama administration's stance, which laid out in an official memo that the federal government wouldn't interfere in states where nonmedical use of marijuana is allowed.
That guidance was issued after two states -- Colorado and Washington -- voted to legalize recreational use of marijuana.
Obama said in the immediate aftermath of those votes that the federal government had "bigger fish to fry" than cracking down on marijuana use in states where it's considered legal.
Most drug enforcement operations are carried out by state and local authorities, with little involvement by the federal government.
Enforcing marijuana laws has been considered a lower priority for federal drug agents, who have remained focused on curbing narcotics trafficking and combating a nationwide epidemic of opioid abuse.
But Spicer linked marijuana use with the widespread abuse of painkillers, suggesting that allowing recreational use of marijuana could be interpreted as condoning drug use more widely.
"When you see something like the opioid addiction crisis blossoming in so many states around this country, the last thing we should be doing is encouraging people," Spicer said. "There is still a federal law that we need to abide by when it comes to recreational marijuana and drugs of that nature."
He was careful to distinguish between use of medical marijuana and recreational marijuana. President Donald Trump, he said, understood that marijuana could help ease suffering for patients with terminal illnesses.
"It was especially disappointing to hear Press Secretary Spicer refer to the opioid crisis in relation to marijuana," the National Cannabis Industry Association said in a statement.
"Science has discredited the idea that marijuana serves as any kind of gateway drug, and the addiction and death rates associated with opioids simply do not occur in any way with cannabis. In fact, scientific research increasingly shows that access to cannabis significantly decreases rates of opioid addiction and death."
One study indicates that cannabis might help people struggling with addiction to heroin and other opioids. That’s according to a recent review of studies that was published in the journal Trends in Neuroscience.
The review examined multiple studies and found that states with legalized marijuana reported a reduction in opioid use. They had fewer prescriptions for opioid painkillers, a lower number of opioid overdoses than states without medical marijuana, and reported fewer opioid-involved car fatalities.
The review suggests that one particular component of marijuana -- cannabidiol, or CBD -- shows promise for treating opioid addiction.
Researchers say CBD has minimal side-effects and no toxicity. This makes it hard to misuse and its strong safety profile even makes it suitable for use by children.
But federal law still classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug with “no currently accepted medical use,” and the Drug Enforcement Administration as recently as August refused to change that designation -- which means the federal government has the power to arrest, charge and imprison marijuana growers, buyers and sellers in states that have made pot legal.
"Using good judgment about how to handle these cases will be a responsibility of mine,” he said.
"It would be premature to speculate on what the administration may or may not do. We have worked with the Department of Justice since legalization to develop a framework that respects voters and promotes public safety," a statement from Gov. John Hickenlooper's office said.
Trump took varying positions on marijuana during his campaign for president. He said during remarks in June 2015 that legal recreational use was "bad," adding he felt "strongly about it."
But later that year he suggested the issue should be decided by individual states and not by the federal government.
"In terms of marijuana and legalization, I think that should be a state issue, state-by-state," he said in Nevada in October 2015.
He's remained staunchly supportive of medical marijuana, telling Fox News host Bill O'Reilly he was "in favor of medical marijuana 100 percent."
"I know people that have serious problems and they did that they really -- it really does help them," he said.