US Attorney General Eric Holder said Friday in Los Angeles that the federal government will enforce its marijuana laws in California even if voters there decide in November to legalize marijuana by approving Proposition 19, the tax and regulate marijuana legalization initiative.
The comments came during a joint press conference with Prop 19 foes, including Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley and Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, as well as former heads of the DEA and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Cooley, who is running for state attorney general, has said he believes all medical marijuana dispensaries are illegal.
According to the Associated Press, Holder Wednesday wrote a letter written to former heads of the DEA saying the Justice Department strongly opposes Prop 19 and remains committed to enforcing the Controlled Substances Act all across the country.
"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," Holder wrote. Legalizing marijuana would be a "significant impediment" to the federal government's effort to target drug traffickers and would "significantly undermine" safety in California communities, the attorney general said.
Prop 19 would legalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana by adults over 21. It would also allow them to grow up to 25 square feet of marijuana and possess the resulting harvest. And it would allow cities and counties to permit, regulate, and tax commercial marijuana sales and cultivation.
The Holder Justice Department last year said it would not interfere with medical marijuana in states where it is legal, but the department is apparently drawing the line at legalizing recreational use. Whether the DEA could actually arrest three million California pot smokers remains to be seen.
Holder's Los Angeles press conference and release of the letter to former DEA heads did not go unchallenged. The Prop 19 campaign, the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), and the Drug Policy Alliance all issued responses Friday morning.
"As we saw with the repeal of alcohol prohibition, it takes action from the states to push the federal government to change its policies," said former San Jose police chief Joe McNamara on behalf of the campaign. "Passing Proposition 19 in California will undoubtedly kick start a national conversation about changing our country's obviously failed marijuana prohibition policies. If the federal government wants to keep fighting the nation’s failed 'war on marijuana' while were in the midst of a sagging economic recovery and two wars it just proves that the establishment politicians' priorities are wrongly focused on maintaining the status quo," he said. "As will be shown on November 2, Californians are not going to let politicians in Washington, DC tell them how to vote."
"The truth is that the use of marijuana -- a substance far less harmful than alcohol or tobacco -- is widespread in this country and nothing the government can do will ever stop that," said Steve Fox, MPP's director of government relations. "The only question is how we structure the market for marijuana so that it is best for society. Will we have marijuana sold in licensed, tax-paying and regulated stores or will we continue to have it sold in a completely unregulated market that makes it more available to teens? Will we impose standards so that purchasers know the quality and purity of the marijuana they are buying or will we keep it in a far less safe unregulated market? Will we have the profits from the sale of marijuana go to legitimate taxpaying American business owners or will they go to underground dealers and cartels who will pay no taxes and defend their interests through violence?"
Saying that Holder and law enforcement opponents of Prop 19 are motivated by "arrogance, prejudice, and self interest," Fox accused them of putting their own job security ahead of the health and safety of the American people. "Attorney General Holder is not looking out for the health and safety of the American people. He is nothing more than the lead advocate for a never-ending taxpayer-funded jobs program for law enforcement officials in this country. If you look at the opposition to marijuana policy reform in this country, it is driven almost entirely by people whose jobs are dependent on arresting and prosecuting individuals for marijuana-related offenses. The only other prominent group is elected officials who ignorantly turn a blind eye to alcohol-fueled violence in our communities in order to pretend they are 'tough on crime' by going after marijuana users who simply want to enjoy a substance less harmful than alcohol in peace."
"The Attorney General’s posturing notwithstanding, this is 1996 all over again," said Steve Gutwillig, California director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Naysayers said then that the passage of Proposition 215, California’s medical marijuana law, would be a symbolic gesture at most because the federal government would continue to criminalize all marijuana use. Today more than 80 million Americans live in 14 states and the District of Columbia that have functioning medical marijuana laws. All that happened without a single change in federal law," he noted.
"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," Gutwillig said.