Six months after two states became the first in the nation to fully legalize recreational marijuana use the federal government has yet to articulate an official response to the historic voter-approved measures while simultaneously authoring a vast pot crackdown and refusing to accept even far less sweeping state-based marijuana laws as legitimate.
The juxtaposition between official inaction and verbalized threats against Colorado and Washington, where voters overwhelmingly passed ballot measures legalizing cannabis last November, has allowed the Obama administration to inculcate a culture of fear among states and the majority of Americans that believe pot should not be criminalized.
As the time draws closer for the government to decide how severely to go after states that trump national drug laws, most observers predict an epic legal clash between federal statutes and the increasingly progressive model for pot regulations being crafted among the individual states. A vow to go after Colorado and Washington for legalization has already been made by President Obama’s chief adviser on drugs as the administration’s wider battle against even pot only used for medical purposes continues to escalate.
Gil Kerlikowske, the official White House “drug czar” and a former chief of police in Seattle, told Canadian magazine MacLean’s that steps will be taken to ensue “enforcement” of federal prohibitions o marijuana is upheld in any state that attempts to supersede such laws.
Kerlikowske argues that a “pachwork” of state-based drug laws interacting with the “public health issue” of marijuana use would create “difficulties,” and the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy gave no indication that the administration is prepared to let the groundbreaking measures passed in Colorado and Washington to stand.
Q: In the November elections, two states—Washington and Colorado—voted to legalize marijuana for recreational use. President Obama has said that the U.S. government has “bigger fish to fry” than to go after recreational users in states where it is legal. Where do things stand with regard to producers and distributors of marijuana, which is still illegal under federal law?
A: You’ll continue to see enforcement against distributors and large-scale growers as the Justice Department has outlined. They will use their limited resources on those groups and not on going after individual users.
Q: You’ve written on the White House website that “coming out of the election, we are in the midst of a national conversation on marijuana.” Is the U.S. headed for a patchwork of policies, state by state?
A: I think a patchwork of policies would create real difficulties. We still have federal law that places marijuana as being illegal. The administration has not done a particularly good job of, one, talking about marijuana as a public health issue, and number two, talking about what can be done and where we should be headed on our drug policy.
The president’s drug czar was even more direct in dismissing the legitimacy of state-by-state legalization in comments last month, giving the most forceful rebuttal to legalized pot yet from any federal official .
Kerlikowske insisted that laws like those approved by voters last year amount to unconstitutional nullification of federal statutes, and that no state can prevent law enforcement from going to pursue” people who are criminals in the eyes of the administration.
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.
But while his drug czar all but condemns citizens who supported pro-pot amendments as akin to modern day secessionists, President Obama has contributed to the confusion on his own administration’s drug policy by repeatedly downplaying marijuana as a law enforcement “priority.”
Shortly after the votes in Colorado and Washington, the president told Barbara Walters in an interview for ABC News that there is “bigger fish to fry” for the federal government than marijuana growers and users, and that combating recreational use in states “that have determined that it’s legal” will not be a “top priority” for the Justice Department.
President Obama says recreational users of marijuana in states that have legalized the substance should not be a “top priority” of federal law enforcement officials prosecuting the war on drugs.
“We’ve got bigger fish to fry,” Obama said of pot users in Colorado and Washington during an exclusive interview with ABC News’ Barbara Walters.
“It would not make sense for us to see a top priority as going after recreational users in states that have determined that it’s legal,” he said, invoking the same approach taken toward users of medicinal marijuana in 18 states where it’s legal.
While he has declined on numerous occasions to publicly endorse a national policy of legalized cannabis, the president’s laissez-faire attitude towards enforcing the federal marijuana prohibition as demonstrated in the Walters interview is concurrent with public sentiment that has undergone an incredible transformation.
Much coverage has been devoted to the landmark Pew poll that founds, for the first time in any nationwide poll, a solid majority of Americans favor making pot legal across the country. This represents a virtual sea change from just a few years ago in public attitudes on marijuana use and the classification of its possession and distribution as an extremely serious crime. Even more important is the endorsement of the legalization movement among young people, with nearly three-quarters of Americans between 18 and 29 backing legal pot.
Many point to the rising tide of public support for legal marijuana as a dynamic shift that makes existing federal drug laws untenable in the same way the prohibition of alcohol was in the first quarter of the 20th century.
Marijuana legalization is “out of the bag” thanks to the growing coverage of laws permitting its medical use, decriminalization for possessing small amounts, or the big laws just approved in Colorado and Washington. Instead of pursuing a failed policy of antagonism towards distributors that would become virtually impossible in states where legal operations have sprung up under the new legalization measures, the federal government ought to work with states to honor the voters while providing safeguards and honest regulation that would ensure clear guidelines for growers, users, and law enforcement.
The feds, who account for only 1 percent of marijuana arrests, simply do not have the manpower to go after all those growers. Nor do they have the constitutional authority to demand assistance from state and local law enforcement agencies that no longer treat pot growing as a crime.
Given this reality, legal analyst Stuart Taylor argues in a recent Brookings Institution paper, the Obama administration and officials in Colorado and Washington should “hammer out clear, contractual cooperation agreements so that state-regulated marijuana businesses will know what they can and cannot safely do.” Such enforcement agreements, which are authorized by the Controlled Substances Act, would provide more security than a mere policy statement, although less than congressional legislation.
Even without a specific resolution from the Justice Department, states are moving ahead with popular and progressive cannabis regulations that honor the will of the voters and the sentiment of the entire nation.
Responding to the legalization measure approved by voters last November, Colorado lawmakers passed a series of historic measures to formally tax and regulate marijuana within the state’s borders. It represents the most sweeping and liberal rules for pot use and distribution in the country.
But with no movement from the Obama administration and little tangible to base policy on besides vague threats and predictions of a federal crackdown on states that buck national drug laws, places like Colorado and Washington State face the likelihood of swift federal retaliation and a battle to prevent implementation of legalization statutes.
The Pacific Northwest has already felt the possible sting of blowback over voter-approved pot legalization laws, proving that the Justice Department may not be willing to let states set pot policy themselves without a confrontation. Numerous pot dispensaries in Washington State were threatened with DEA raids and ordered to shutter their businesses late last month, although federal officials claimed it was not in connection with last November’s vote.
The agency refuted arguments that they should recognize the new state law on marijuana, affirming that DEA “enforces federal drug laws” and that state-based measures are essentially illegal.
Cease-and-desist letters were sent to 11 Seattle-area pot dispensaries because they are within 1,000 feet of schools or other prohibited areas, according to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
The DEA would not identify the businesses or their precise locations.
Despite Washington state’s new legal recreational-pot law, enacted by voter-approved Initiative 502, all forms of marijuana remain illegal under federal law. A policy statement from the Obama administration is supposedly coming on the new legal-pot laws in Colorado and Washington.
DEA spokeswoman Jodie Underwood said the 11 dispensaries received the same letters that went to 23 local dispensaries last August. She said the letters, dated April 29, did not have implications for Washington’s and Colorado’s new laws.
“DEA enforces federal drug laws, and these letters have nothing to do with any pending legislation or state law. The ballot initiatives in both states are under review by DOJ (the Department of Justice),” she said.
A test case for how the feds would go after legalized pot is the aggressive crackdown on medical marijuana dispensaries in states where they are perfectly legal and thoroughly regulated, primarily in California. The Obama Justice Department has made medical marijuana a “top priority,” despite the contrary assertions by the president, shuttering hundreds of operations in states from California to Montana and repeatedly ignoring the increasing umber of state laws legalizing medical marijuana. .
The federal crackdown includes a suit filed earlier this month to shut down a medical pot dispensary in Berkeley that is California’s oldest such establishment, an action vigorously condemned by local city officials and labeled “mean” and “vindictive” by advocates for medical cannabis.
Several dozen protesters gathered in downtown Berkeley Wednesday afternoon to fight federal action against one of California’s oldest medical marijuana dispensaries, targeted for closure by the Justice Department.
“The Obama administration’s ongoing war against patients is despicable and has to stop,” Steph Sherer, executive director of Americans for Safe Access, told the crowd. “This is a mean, vindictive move aimed at shutting down one of the oldest and well-respected dispensaries in the country.”
U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag on Friday served pot shop Berkeley Patients Group with a lawsuit that attempts to seize the property and ultimately shut the business. Berkeley officials say the dispensary provides significant benefits to the community.
“BPG has served as a national model of the not-for-profit, services-based medical cannabis dispensary,” Berkeley City Council member Darryl Moore said in a resolution opposing the lawsuit. “They have improved the lives and assisted the end-of-life transitions of thousands of patients; been significant donors to dozens of other organizations in our city; [and] shaped local, state and national policies around medical cannabis.”
Berkeley Patients Group received a letter from Haag last year, claiming its location within 1,000 feet of a school broke state law. The operation later relocated, and the lawsuit makes no mention of its proximity to schools or violation of specific laws.
Federal agents and prosecutors have not held back in showing considerable zeal in carrying out the government’s pot crackdown. Several other medical pot dispensaries have received similar treatment to the iconic Berkeley clinic, including threats made to owners of an another California operation of 40 years in prison for engaging in activities considered legal and respectable in the Golden State, but deemed a menace on par with terrorism by the Obama administration.
A San Jose dispensary operator has informed us that the federal government has begun a new round of actions against lawful medical cannabis dispensaries in the South Bay. Landlords are receiving threatening letters from US Attorney Melinda Haag, warning of forty-year-prison sentences if landlords do not evict their dispensary tenants.
Dated April 26, one letter to a San Jose landlord stated: “The office has been advised that there is a marijuana dispensary … operating at the real property located at …, which property you own or have under your management control. The dispensary is operating in violation of federal law, and persons and entities who operate or facilitate the operation of such dispensaries are subject to criminal prosecution and civil enforcement actions. Since the dispensary is operating within a prohibited distance of a [Art Academy], the unlawful operation of the dispensary is subject to enhanced penalties.”
Haag threatened the landlord with property forfeiture, forty years in prison, and asset seizure, among other penalties.
“Please take the necessary steps to discontinue the sale and/or distribution of marijuana at the above-referenced location. … Very truly yours, Melinda Haag, United States Attorney.”
Our sources forwarded two such letters to us and wrote, “I’m sure there are more of these.”