SACRAMENTO, Calif. – The Obama administration has joined California’s historic debate over legalizing marijuana, vowing to “vigorously enforce” federal laws against pot even if state voters approve a Nov. 2 initiative legalizing its use for recreational purposes.
In a letter to former drug enforcement administrators made public Friday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said prosecution of marijuana crimes is a “core priority” of the Department of Justice and would remain so regardless of whether Proposition 19 passes.
It was the first time Holder explained the position his department would take if the recreational use initiative becomes state law.
“Let me state clearly that the Department of Justice strongly opposes Proposition 19,” Holder said in the letter, dated Wednesday. “If passed, this legislation will greatly complicate federal drug enforcement efforts to the detriment of our citizens.”
Proponents of Proposition 19 said Holder was “posturing.”
“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,” said Stephen Gutwillig, California director of the Drug Policy Alliance, in a statement. “Well over 95 percent of all marijuana arrests in this country are made by state and local law enforcement.”
California became the first state in the nation to authorize medical marijuana with Proposition 215 in 1996; since then, 13 other states and the District of Columbia have followed suit.
The Bush and Clinton administrations took enforcement actions against medical marijuana sellers and users after Proposition 215 passed, and the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 ruled that federal officials could prosecute medical marijuana activities regardless of state legalization.
But the Obama administration last year said it would not prosecute medical marijuana in states where it is legal.
Vikram Amar, associate dean for academic affairs at the University of California, Davis, School of Law, said the Obama administration clearly wanted to make a statement on recreational use before the November election.
“I think (Holder) is really trying to send a message that the earlier policy with respect to medicinal marijuana should not be confused with the policy on recreational marijuana,” Amar said.
Supporters have suggested that the legalization of recreational marijuana use would bolster cash-strapped governments in California and reduce costs for law enforcement and corrections.
Holder issued his memo in response to a letter sent in August by nine former administrators of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency urging him to take a stance on Proposition 19.