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Memos issued during President Obama’s first term sent conflicting messages to marijuana advocates, particularly those in the medical marijuana industry who saw dispensaries in some states raided or shuttered.

The ambiguity has riled marijuana advocates, who expected more support from the president for decriminalization.

As a U.S. Senate candidate, Mr. Obama told Illinois college students in January 2004 that he supported eliminating criminal penalties for marijuana use or possession, a debate video shows.

“I think we need to rethink and decriminalize our marijuana laws,” Mr. Obama said during a debate at Northwestern University. “But I’m not somebody who believes in legalization of marijuana.”

While passage of a decriminalization bill seems all but assured in the District, activists are mixed in their support of legalization efforts with some worried that by pushing the envelope the city could set itself back in the long run.

“There is no question that is where things are going eventually, the question is timing,” said Dan Riffle, director of federal policies at the Marijuana Policy Project, citing recent polling that put D.C. residents’ support for marijuana legalization at 63 percent.

A press release issued by the group Monday announced support for legalization efforts in 10 states but omitted the District. The decision was made in part because federal oversight could threaten a reversal of any law, Mr. Riffle said.

“The fact that it’s under Congress’ jurisdiction might incline us to wait a little bit longer than we would otherwise,” Mr. Riffle said.

A ballot initiative

For more than 10 years, Congress blocked implementation of the District’s medical marijuana law, which was approved by voter referendum in 1998.

But noting the eventual success of that ballot initiative, other pro-pot activists see the grassroots approach to legalization as a more viable option.

Hoping to put the matter before voters, activist Adam Eidinger plans to submit an initiative by Friday to the D.C. Board of Elections that would put marijuana legalization on the 2014 ballot. Last week, Mr. Eidinger withdrew a previously submitted initiative that would have reduced penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana, pledging to pursue legalization instead.

“I think a ballot initiative will make it harder for Congress to interfere without a political cost,” Mr. Eidinger said, adding that a ballot initiative could galvanize politicians who otherwise might be too timid to support legalization. “Smart politicians will adjust their position on this and will be more willing to explore this.”

Although Mr. Riffle called a legalization ballot initiative “a slam-dunk,” legislation would require more convincing.

“I totally agree that small amounts of marijuana should not put someone through the criminal justice system,” said council member Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat. “I don’t know that I’m willing to go all the way toward legalization.”

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