Baffling, but leave it to O to pursue terrible big-government policies even in a rare case where his base would prefer a lighter federal touch.
Congress says marijuana is dangerous and illegal, voters in Washington and Colorado say it isn’t. What’s a recently reelected pothead-turned-POTUS (who won both states) to do?
Even as marijuana legalization supporters are celebrating their victories in the two states, the Obama administration has been holding high-level meetings since the election to debate the response of federal law enforcement agencies to the decriminalization efforts…
One option is for federal prosecutors to bring some cases against low-level marijuana users of the sort they until now have rarely bothered with, waiting for a defendant to make a motion to dismiss the case because the drug is now legal in that state. The department could then obtain a court ruling that federal law trumps the state one.
A more aggressive option is for the Justice Department to file lawsuits against the states to prevent them from setting up systems to regulate and tax marijuana, as the initiatives contemplated. If a court agrees that such regulations are pre-empted by federal ones, it will open the door to a broader ruling about whether the regulatory provisions can be “severed” from those eliminating state prohibitions — or whether the entire initiatives must be struck down.
Part of what’s amazing about this is that they don’t need to file a preemption suit to go on busting marijuana users in those states. Federal law already gives the local U.S. Attorney the authority he/she needs to prosecute. Their problem, I think, boils down to manpower: The feds depend heavily on local cops to enforce drug laws, but now that federal law and state law in Washington and Colorado conflict, it’s inevitable that there’ll be fewer arrests by local police. Doesn’t matter that local cops are sworn to uphold federal law too. Because of the confusion over marijuana laws, you’re bound to see sympathetic officers looking the other way more often at federal infractions. O has two obvious ways to eliminate that confusion: Either he can declare that the DOJ will make federal marijuana laws a low priority for enforcement in states that have legalized weed or he can try to torpedo those state laws and thereby nudge local cops back into the practice of more rigorous enforcement. Go figure that he chose the more imperious approach.
The other amazing part, and the part that baffles me, is that he has plenty of political cover to lighten up on this. He’s a lame duck; the young voters who guaranteed him a second term would be grateful; the polls are trending towards legalization; he could even tout it as some sort of budgetary measure in the midst of fiscal-cliff negotiations, saving money on prosecutions of minor drug infractions. The politics are similar in many ways to the politics of his “evolution” on gay marriage, replete with liberals wink-winking before the election that Obama will feel differently about this subject in time. From a basic cultural standpoint, it’s almost impossible to believe that a doctrinaire upper-middle class liberal intellectual like O thinks prosecuting people for weed is a good idea, especially when pot and coke were no barrier to him winning the presidency. And it can’t be a matter of him insisting on prosecuting people on principle, because he swore to enforce all federal laws. He told his DOJ not to enforce DOMA and that’s still valid federal law (for the moment). Maybe, for whatever reason, he feels he can’t confront marijuana-law hawks in the DEA and anti-drug lobby, but he’s got as much political capital at the moment as he’s ever likely to have again. If not now, when?
Exit question: Isn’t this a rather sweet political opportunity for the GOP? They’re desperate for ways to earn some goodwill with young voters and minorities. Opposing prosecutions for weed is an easy way to do it, and thanks to Washington and Colorado voters, they wouldn’t have to do it on the merits if they so chose. They could do it purely on federalism grounds — i.e. while opinions on marijuana may differ, it’s disgraceful that Congress would trump the considered judgment of a sovereign state on what its citizens should and shouldn’t be allowed to ingest. I doubt you’d lose many anti-marijuana seniors with a principled argument like that and it would change the framework of this debate enough that it might allow for a bolder decriminalization debate later.