By Elise Viebeck - 04/25/12 06:10 PM EDT
President Obama defended his administration's crackdown on some medical marijuana dispensaries, saying he could not ask the Justice Department to ignore federal law.
"I can't nullify congressional law," he told Rolling Stone in a new interview.
Attorney General Eric Holder echoed that commitment in a 2009 memo stating that users and dispensaries that comply with state and local laws would not be a priority for the Justice Department.
Since that time, more than 100 dispensaries have been raided by federal prosecutors, according to reports.
In 2010, Holder wrote that his department would "vigorously enforce" federal laws related to the drug when a ballot initiative in California sought, unsuccessfully, to legalize its use.
"What I specifically said was that we were not going to prioritize prosecutions of persons who are using medical marijuana," said Obama to Rolling Stone.
"I never made a commitment that somehow we were going to give carte blanche to large-scale producers and operators of marijuana — and the reason is, because it's against federal law."
Federal prosecutors have targeted dispensaries in California, Colorado and other states. In one case, marijuana businesses located near schools in Colorado were told to close or face prosecution.
Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), a longtime supporter of eliminating restrictions on medical marijuana dispensaries, said at the time that federal prosecutors should yield to state laws governing the businesses.
"The Justice Department has repeatedly made clear that dispensaries that are in compliance with state law are not an enforcement priority," Polis said in a statement. "Colorado's tough system of medical marijuana regulation is the best way to keep drugs out of the hands of minors."
Obama told Rolling Stone that "large-scale, commercial" marijuana businesses that might supply both medical and recreational users present a problem for law enforcement.
"In that situation, we put the Justice Department in a very difficult place if we're telling them, 'This is supposed to be against the law, but we want you to turn the other way,' " he said.
"That's not something we're going to do."
He later called for a "broader debate about our drug laws" and praised a law now in effect that narrowed the sentencing gap for crack and powder cocaine offenses.
"We've had a discussion about how to focus on treatment, taking a public-health approach to drugs and lessening the overwhelming emphasis on criminal laws as a tool to deal with this issue," he said.
"I think that's an appropriate debate that we should have."
The interview will appear in Rolling Stone's May 10 edition.