Late last week, United States Attorney General Eric Holder warned Californians not to expect kid glove handling of federal marijuana law infractions even if the drug becomes legal under state Prop 19.
"Regardless of the passage of this or similar legislation, the Department of Justice will remain firmly committed to enforcing the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) in all states," Holder said in a letter to eight former DEA administrators who have been urging the Obama administration to take a firm stand against the ballot initiative. "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."
It was a genuine head-scratching moment for advocates of legalizing the general use of cannabis, but also surprised administration watchers. After all, only a few years ago, the feds decided not to prosecute licensed medical marijuana distribution and consumption. So why the change?
The ostensible reason is logical enough – one state's rules do not a national policy make, and the DOJ does not want to establish a precedent on the basis of this single California rule change. But, there's something that just doesn't ring true about Holder's out-of-the-blue announcement.
In a dose of reality, Jacob Sullum of Reason Magazine's 'Hit & Run' blog lists some interesting facts about national pot enforcement. For example, in 2008, there were 848,000 marijuana arrests, with a mere 1% of those arrests made by the feds. In addition, there are only 5,500 DEA agents across the nation, but 70,000 cops in California.
Sullum notes that the DOJ "certainly can make trouble, but it simply does not have the resources to bust a significant percentage of the state's marijuana offenders now, let alone after every adult is allowed to grow his own pot." It can try to influence the vote on Prop 19. A similar tactic was tried by opponents of Prop 215 (legalizing medical marijuana) back in 1999, in which they argued that supporting the proposition was no more then a symbolic gesture because federal enforcement would continue unabated.
Not so, says Stephen Gutwillig, California director of the Drug Policy Alliance:
"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."
Holder's posturing is more likely an effort to put up a tough front for his DEA enforcement team and to undermine potential political leverage for Republicans should the Obama administration show any support whatsoever for softening its position on drug laws.
The 800-pound gorilla of Prop 19 is whether marijuana should be treated as a safe recreational drug or not. If you believe that there is no greater harm to society from marijuana usage than there is from tobacco or alcohol, marijuana laws are simply a repeat of alcohol prohibition, which put all of the revenue from liquor into the hands of criminals, and denied tax revenues to the government. If you find any drug use whatsoever anathema, then legalization of even the mildest drugs puts us on the slippery slope to societal ruin.