Supporters of marijuana reform took heart last week from statements by President Barack Obama and spokesman Jay Carney that the pursuit and conviction of small users was down the list of priorities of enforcement officials.
But, guess what?
Marijuana remains illegal in the United States, including Washington and Colorado.
The comments from the White House do not fundamentally change what the president has said in the past. Nor do they provide any guidance to state authorities trying to define state prerogatives.
Misjudging the extent of the president’s movement toward more accommodative enforcement leaves thousands of marijuana users, suppliers, even law enforcement, at risk in the crossfire between federal authorities and officials in Olympia and Denver.
Washington and Colorado have made the use of marijuana by adults legal, but Washington, D.C., has overriding authority.
Anti-dope laws have entered the mystic world of quasi-federalism already occupied by the Defense of Marriage Act. As more states ease the legal restrictions against same-sex marriage and the use of pot, residents must rely on federal forbearance, or that of other states, to fully exercise their new prerogatives.
If his statements translate into Department of Justice relaxing its anti-dope efforts, the president will be engaged in another exercise of presidential nullification, redeemed in the case of marijuana and DOMA only because he is clearly in step with what has already become widespread social nullification akin to that which made a mockery of the 18th Amendment’s ban on alcohol use. Marijuana legalization has been advocated for decades, same-sex marriage only recently, but Washington is unlikely to be alone for long in sanctioning both.
The executive branch of government, charged with executing laws passed by Congress, has long been casual about enforcing some laws. Immigration is another recent example.
Resolving the disconnect between state and federal law must go beyond unpredictable enforcement. As the president said, “We’re going to need to have is a conversation about, how do you reconcile a federal law that still says marijuana is a federal offense and state laws that say that it’s legal?”
Attorney General Eric Holder says the DOJ will clarify its position soon, and Senate hearings on marijuana laws are scheduled. Removing the categorization of marijuana as a Schedule One substance of no medical use would be a start toward a rational pot policy.
The president says the nation has “bigger fish to fry” than controlling marijuana, a sad understatement in the context of the Friday school shootings in Connecticut, and the rapidly approaching fling off the “fiscal cliff.”
How much money might be saved by redeploying money thrown at marijuana enforcement? And how much might be made if it was taxed?
We need to move on.