Obama administration blasts state's pot measure
Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer
Saturday, October 16, 2010
(10-15) 18:23 PDT WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration has denounced Proposition 19, which would legalize personal use of marijuana in California, and promises to "vigorously enforce" the federal ban on possessing, growing or selling the drug if voters approve the ballot measure Nov. 2.
The pledge came Thursday from Attorney General Eric Holder, who oversees the government's anti-narcotics operations. Prop. 19 would "greatly complicate federal drug enforcement efforts to the detriment of our nation," he said in a letter to former chiefs of the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Holder announced in February 2009 that the administration would not single out medical marijuana users and suppliers who complied with laws in states such as California, where voters legalized pot for therapeutic purposes in 1996.
The administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, by contrast, moved aggressively to shut down medical marijuana collectives and raid growers, and won two U.S. Supreme Court rulings upholding their authority.
But the Obama administration has been less receptive to the prospect of a state repealing all criminal penalties for marijuana use by adults.
Gil Kerlikowske, director of President Obama's Office of National Drug Control Policy, co-wrote a newspaper column in August calling Prop. 19 an "ill-considered scheme" that would increase marijuana use and add to health problems and traffic deaths, without delivering the tax revenue that its backers promise.
Holder said Thursday that California, by restricting the authority of state and local officers to seize marijuana, would interfere with efforts to "target drug traffickers who frequently distribute marijuana alongside cocaine and other controlled substances."
"We will vigorously enforce the (federal law) against those individuals and organizations that possess, manufacture or distribute marijuana for recreational use, even if such activities are permitted under state law," the attorney general said.
Hints at lawsuit
He also suggested the federal government might sue to overturn Prop. 19 if it passed, saying the Justice Department "is considering all available legal and policy options."
Obama was more restrained when asked about marijuana enforcement Thursday at a town hall meeting at Howard University in Washington.
The president said the government's resources are limited and suggested that decisions would have to be made between "prosecuting drug kingpins versus somebody with some small amount in terms of possession."
Obama said federal authorities would make that call "based on how we can best enforce the laws that are on the books."
His administration's emphatic opposition to Prop. 19 drew strong reactions from the ballot measure's supporters.
In a statement released by the Yes on 19 campaign, Joseph McNamara, former San Jose police chief, said:
"If the federal government wants to keep fighting the nation's failed 'war on marijuana' while we're 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."
Any federal crackdown will be just as futile as the government's attempt to stamp out medical marijuana after Californians passed Proposition 215 in 1996, said Dale Gieringer, state director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
Despite numerous raids and arrests, he said, "the federal government showed itself incapable of halting the spread of medical marijuana, which is now legally recognized in 14 states and enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of legal patients."
Gieringer added, "The federal government similarly lacks the manpower and resources to pursue California's 3 million marijuana users."
E-mail Bob Egelko at firstname.lastname@example.org.