Former American drug officials are sounding the alarm over ballot initiatives next month in three US states that would legalize the sale of marijuana for recreational use, warning Monday that the proposed measures are in clear violation of federal law and represent a serious threat to the public.
The November 6 ballot initiatives in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington State mark the latest battlefields in a national debate over marijuana’s legalization, which Americans increasingly support, according to polls.
Peter Bensinger, a former administrator of the US Drug Enforcement Administration, told reporters Monday that voters in the three states will see a spike in traffic accidents, overdoses, and drug addiction should they choose to allow the commercial production and sale of marijuana to adults.
“The legalization of marijuana is not about politics,” Bensinger said on a conference call. “It’s about public health, public safety, science and the law.”
Bensinger spoke Monday on behalf of nine former DEA administrators who are calling on US Attorney General Eric Holder to warn voters in the three states that legalizing the substance would set them up for a showdown with federal authorities.
Holder issued just such a warning in the run-up to a similar ballot initiative rejected by California voters in 2010, saying the Justice Department would “vigorously” prosecute “individuals and organizations that possess, manufacture, or distribute marijuana for recreational use, even if such activities are permitted under state law.”
The Justice Department has remained silent on the three ballot measures this year, leaving both opponents and proponents of the initiatives scratching their heads about how the federal government might react should they be passed.
John Walters, the former US “drug czar” under the administration of President George W. Bush, told reporters that the silence of the Justice Department and the White House on the legalization drives is “shocking.”
“All they have to do is say things this administration has already said,” Walters said on Monday’s conference call. “By saying it in a timely way, it would help enormously to defeat these measures.”
The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment Monday on what its response would be should any of the three states vote for legalization.
Support for legalizing the use of marijuana has grown steadily in America over the past several decades, according to Gallup polls conducted since 1969. In a Gallup poll taken in October 2011, a record 50 percent of Americans said use of the drug should be legal. The poll had a margin of error of 4 percent.
Supporters of this year’s ballot initiatives in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington State say marijuana should be regulated and taxed much in the same way as alcohol and cigarettes. Legalization would keep nonviolent drug offenders from crowding prisons, and taxes on the drug could provide a huge financial windfall for states struggling to balance their budgets, they say.
Washington State’s office of financial management has estimated that it could take in nearly $2 billion in tax revenues from marijuana sales should voters there pass the measure, which would give regulatory powers over the drug to the state liquor board and allow a limited amount of marijuana to people aged 21 and over.
Like many supporters of legalization, Washington State Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles compares the outlawing of marijuana to America’s disastrous federal prohibition of alcohol in the first half of the 20th century, which drove alcohol onto the black market and became a bonanza for organized crime networks.
“We have a system like Prohibition, and it’s time to change,” she said.
Other elected officials in the state say they are against the bill because it would pit the state’s residents against federal authorities.
“It’s set our citizens up, potentially, for the federal DEA to come in and arrest people with small amounts of marijuana, even though Washington State would allow it,” said state legislator Mike Armstrong. “…If the federal law was changed, then I may have a different outlook on it.”
Robert Mikos, an expert on federal and criminal law at Vanderbilt Law School, said it could take years before a unified response by the federal government begins to take shape should voters choose legalization.
Federal prosecutors’ crackdown on medical marijuana in several states—including seizures and civil actions by the Justice Department—in recent years could prove to be a model for federal action against legalized pot, Mikos said.
Washington State legislator Joe Fitzgibbon, a backer of the initiative, said he expects it to pass, but he thinks the federal government will also likely seek an injunction. But he said he expects legalization to triumph in the end.
“For a long time the states have been viewed as laboratories of democracy,” Fitzgibbon said. “When the federal policy is so broken, states take action and kick the federal government to reevaluate whether its policy is working.”