Attorney General Vows to Crack Down on Legalized California Pot

Not so fast, says AG Eric Holder

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Next month, California voters will decide on Proposition 19, a state initiative to legalize marijuana. If passed, the proposition, also known as the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act, would make California the first state to legalize pot; it would also conflict with the Controlled Substances Act, the federal law that classes marijuana in the same legal category as heroin, ecstasy and other drugs. Last week, Attorney General Eric Holder made it clear that the federal government would continue to enforce anti-cannabis laws in California even if Prop 19 passes, leaving onlookers to wonder exactly what such a clash would look like.

  • U.S. Government to California: Pot Will Still Be Illegal  In a letter to nine former Drug Enforcement Administration heads, Holder wrote that "we will vigorously enforce the CSA against those individuals and organizations that possess, manufacture or distribute marijuana for recreational use, even if such activities are permitted under state law."

  • California to U.S. Government: Try and Stop Us  It's not clear whether the federal government can be effective without the state's cooperation. Steve Gutwillig, state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, said that "the Attorney General's posturing notwithstanding... the reality is that the federal government has neither the resources nor the political will to undertake sole--or even primary--enforcement responsibility for low level marijuana offenses in California. Well over 95% of all marijuana arrests in this country are made by state and local law enforcement. The federal government may criminalize marijuana, but it can't force states to do so, and it can't require states to enforce federal law."

  • How Would That Play Out?  Mark Kleiman at The Reality-Based Community makes a prediction: Holder's announcement suggests that "the commercialization provisions of Prop. 19--taxation and regulation via local option--are a dead letter. Presumably the Justice Department would ask for an injunction barring any California official from issuing a license--in effect, a license to commit a federal felony... and I expect that the courts would issue such an injunction. Even if no injunction issued, any grower or retailer who filed California tax or regulatory paperwork would be confessing to a federal felony. So there wouldn’t be open commercial growing or (non-medical) sale." However, he adds...

If no county or municipality can issue a license, [the sale and commercial growth of pot] will remain illegal in California. If California law enforcement continues to enforce those laws vigorously, nothing much will change. If not, there's no way to put enough Federal resources in the field to make up for the absence of state and local enforcement, and California will become the cannabis supplier to the rest of the country, and probably Canada.

  • Surely There Are Bigger Things to Worry About, writes Marc Perkel at BuzzFlash. "Maybe the justice department should make catching the criminals that ripped off the banking system a core priority? Or make prosecuting the criminals in the Bush administration who got us into a war in Iraq through falsifying evidence a core priority? Maybe the should make going after Meth labs, drugs that really are dangerous, a core priority?"

  • Former Surgeon General: Just Legalize It Already  Elders, who was Surgeon General for 15 months under President Clinton, appeared on CNN this Sunday to voice her support for marijuana legalization. Elders pointed out that marijuana is non-toxic and no more likely to enable bad decisions than alcohol, and called it "horrible" that "we criminalize young people and we use so many of our excellent resources... for things that are really not causing us any  problems." In this, Elders takes a stand opposite to that of the Obama White House, which "has largely hewed to the marijuana-enforcement policy of previous administrations," as The Wall Street Journal reports.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.