President Barack Obama’s recent comments about marijuana give one reason to hope he may be shifting his perspective. In an interview last week, the president said that the federal government would not pursue pot users in Colorado and Washington, two states that legalized marijuana through voter-approved measures in November.
But Obama has a lot of proving left to do on the issue.
Absent from his statement was his attitude toward growers, distributors and sellers. His track record on marijuana enforcement suggests that the feds will likely continue a federal crackdown against marijuana in those realms, since he has argued in other instances that he cannot order federal workers to ignore the law.
California is a prime example of this hypocrisy. Campaigning in 2008, Obama said he would leave medical marijuana alone. Attorney General Eric Holder then stated that his Department of Justice would not prosecute growers, distributors and users of medical marijuana as long as everyone followed state laws. But since those hopeful statements, the feds have raided nearly 200 dispensaries and growers around the nation. Some may have been operating illegally, but the pressure on the system is undeniable.
In Northern California, U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag has dogged dispensaries, and many in San Francisco have been forced to close. The more the federal government hounds these operations, the more they are going underground. Instead of marijuana being distributed in locations that can be monitored and licensed, it will once again be trafficked behind closed doors and in the streets.
When voters passed Proposition 215 in 1996, they wanted a way to legitimize this medical treatment for sick people who could use marijuana to treat their maladies. The indiscriminate federal pressure on this industry is doing nothing to help clarify the rules surrounding medical marijuana. If anything, the efforts of the Department of Justice have only made it more likely that marijuana will once again become the province of criminals.
But now the voters have spoken in Colorado and Washington. Obama seems to be appeasing them with one hand, saying that individual users will not be caught up in federal actions. But everyone should be wary of what his other hand is doing, for it could come down like a fist upon growers, distributors and sellers — much as the feds have done against California’s medical marijuana system.
In addition to going against the will of the voters, this misguided approach is wasting federal law enforcement funding that could be better spent in so many other areas. It also would take far fewer federal resources to begin devising a structure under which marijuana could be legally grown, distributed and consumed. There would be many details to work out, but we as a nation have been able to figure out how to sell many other regulated products. One more would not be overly burdensome.
The federal government can continue to devote its federal agents to arresting people in the marijuana industries, and it can continue to waste millions of dollars prosecuting people for the petty crimes associated with it. Or it could dedicate a few dozen lawyers to devising some genuine regulatory guidelines and steward the nation’s criminal justice resources to track down criminals who cause far great harms.
In the end, many of these decisions reside with Obama. But so far his answers do not go far enough.