Obama administration may back marijuana prohibition, but that doesn’t mean that California voters have to do the same

U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr., in a letter Wednesday to nine former chiefs of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, declared, “Let me state clearly that the Department of Justice strongly opposes Proposition 19. …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.”

To which I’d respond: So what? Of course the Obama administration is wedded to America’s failed prohibition policies. After all, it is their policy.

And of course the voters of California cannot change the federal Controlled Substances Act via a statewide vote. Nobody ever claimed that they could.

However, here’s what is noteworthy. Despite the claims from Prop. 19 opponents that the measure would be ‘preempted’ by the federal government, at no time has the administration challenge the fact that Californians have the legal right to determine their own marijuana policies. Rather, the federal government has simply reinforced that they remain of the opinion that pot ought to be criminally outlawed — a position that is clearly out-of-step with the American public’s sentiment.

Furthermore, Californians have been here before and not just in 1996, when a majority of voters decided in favor of legalizing the statewide medical use of marijuana. Seventy-eight years ago this November, Californians overwhelmingly voted for the repeal of a morally, socially, and economically failed public policy – alcohol prohibition. Voters did not wait for the federal government to act; they took the matter into their own hands. And they will likely do so again this November.

Finally, it goes without saying that the federal justice department — verbal bluster aside — lacks both the resources and the political will to take on the role of targeting and prosecuting the estimated 3.3 million Californians who are presently consuming cannabis for non-medical purposes. These duties are relegated to state, not federal, law enforcement officials. Just as medical marijuana has existed as a legal market in California, in obvious violation of federal Controlled Substances Act, Prop. 19 will too remain the law of the land post-November 2.

Which ultimately begs the question, If a government’s legitimate use of state power is based on the consent of the governed, then at what point does marijuana prohibition — in particular the federal enforcement of prohibition — become illegitimate public policy? Perhaps it is time to ask President Obama and United States Attorney General Eric Holder?
 
Paul Armentano is the Deputy Director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and is the co-author of the book Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink?