President Barack Obama's drug czar toed a strict line on marijuana Wednesday, saying federal laws will prevail regardless of state-level efforts to legalize pot.
Gil Kerlikowske said enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 -- which ranks marijuana as a Schedule One drug alongside heroin, LSD and ecstasy -- remains in the hands of the US Department of Justice.
"No state, no executive can nullify a statute that has been passed by Congress," the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy told a National Press Club luncheon.
"Let's be clear: law enforcement officers take an oath of office to uphold federal law and they are going to continue to pursue drug traffickers and drug dealers," he said.
Voters in Colorado and Washington last November approved proposals to legalize the possession of small quantities of marijuana by individuals in their respective states.
Earlier this month, a Pew Research Center opinion poll indicated that for the first time in more than four decades of polling on the issue, a majority of Americans -- 52 percent -- think marijuana should be legalized.
Several states have approved the medical use of marijuana with a doctor's prescription, and the first marijuana clinic in the nation's capital, just up the street from the Capitol, is near opening its doors.
New York's Governor Andrew Cuomo is meanwhile pressing his state's legislature to decriminalize the possession in public view of less than 15 grams of marijuana.
But to the dismay of pot campaigners, many of whom voted to re-elect the Democratic president, the Obama administration has maintained its predecessors' tough stance on marijuana as part of a broader, never-ending "war on drugs."
Under US federal law, possession of marijuana is punishable by up to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine for a first offense, going up to three years and $5,000 for repeat offenses.
On its website, the Office of National Drug Control Policy says marijuana has "a high potential for abuse and no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States" as well as a raft of health risks.
Last week, the head of the US Drug Enforcement Agency, Michele Leonhart, told Congress it had seized $2.8 billion dollars in illicit drugs assets and profits, including some $750 million in cash.
Kerlikowske said the decriminalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington presented "a complex set of questions" to health professionals, school administrators, elected officials and law enforcement officers.
The former police chief of Seattle, Washington acknowledged that the drug debate in the United States is "extremely polarized" between those favoring wholesale legalization and those who prefer an iron-fisted crackdown.
"Neither of these extreme positions presents a 21st-century approach," said Kerlikowske, who made a case for better youth education, more effective rehab programs and an end to the "stigma" that haunts recovering addicts.
"If you could fit an answer to the drug problems in this country on a bumper sticker," he said, I think you can be assured of one thing -- and that is that it's wrong."