Last week, voters in Colorado passed a bill that changed state laws to allow possession of one ounce of marijuana and six plants, while Washington voters changed state laws to allow residents over 21 to purchase up to an ounce of weed from licensed dealers.
The problem, of course, is that federal law still prohibits marijuana possession, and the Obama administration has shown it’s willing and able to raid marijuana operations that have been sanctioned by state law.
It’s not yet clear how the feds will respond to the new laws in Washington and Colorado—the US Attorney’s office in Colorado says it is “reviewing the ballot initiative” and has no comment “at this time.” But Wednesday, two high-profile members of Congress publicly asked the Obama administration to respect the state laws, making them the first members to speak out strongly in support of the local laws.
Representatives Barney Frank and Ron Paul—who no doubt inhabit mostly opposite sides of the ideological spectrum—sent Obama a letter asking him to refrain from prosecution of people following the Colorado and Washington laws. (The duo has already introduced a bill to end the federal ban on marijuana).
The letter reads, in part:
We have sponsored legislation at the federal level to remove criminal penalties for the use of marijuana because of our belief in individual freedom. We recognize that this has not yet become national policy, but we believe there are many strong reasons for your administration to allow the states of Colorado and Washington to set the policies they believe appropriate in this regard, without the federal government overriding the choices made by the voters of these states.
Respect for the rights of states to set policies on those matters that primarily affect their own residents argues for federal noninterference in this case, as does respect for the wishes of the voters—again, on matters that primarily affect those in the relevant electorate. Additionally, we believe that scarce federal resources—law enforcement, prosecutorial, judicial, and penal—should not be expended in opposition to the wishes of the voters of Colorado and Washington, given the responsibility of all federal officials to find ways to withhold unwise or unnecessary expenditures.
We believe that respecting the wishes of the electorates of Colorado and Washington and allowing responsible state authorities to carry out those wishes will provide valuable information in an important national debate. Our request does not mean any permanent waiver of the ability of the federal government to enforce national laws should there be negative consequences of these state decisions—which we do not believe are at all likely—and thus we have as a result of these two states’ decisions a chance to observe in two states the effect of the policy that we continue to believe would be wise for the country as a whole. Those who disagree with us should welcome the opportunity to put their theories to a test.
Citizen action is picking up too. David Sirota has started an official petition to the White House, asking it to respect the new laws. And Attorney General Holder has at times appeared to soften his stance on harsh drug enforcement.
But significant obstacles obviously remain. The law, as issued by the Supreme Court, is on the other side of the marijuana activists.
And this week, Latin American leaders seem to be stepping up pressure on the Obama administration to make a decision. The leaders of Mexico, Belize, Honduras and Costa Rica called on the United States to “review” their marijuana policy, because the new state laws will make marijuana enforcement in their countries much more difficult as legal demand in the United States increases.
“Obviously we can’t handle a product that is illegal in Mexico, trying to stop its transfer to the United States, when in the United States, at least in part of the United States, it now has a different status,” said a member of the Mexican president-elect’s transition team.
Marijuana activists welcomed the news, as an international review of drug laws was an explicit goal of the Washington and Colorado efforts. But there’s a flipside: since the Latin American leaders appear to be threatening to curtail enforcement of marijuana laws, this might quickly pressure the United States into enforcing federal law against the desires of Colorado and Washington residents.
Either way, the pressure—from Congress and from foreign leaders—is mounting. The administration will likely have to make a decision soon.
California voted to amend the state’s “three strikes” rule, another step against the War on Drugs. Read Eugene Jarecki’s take.