President Obama’s Marijuana Problem

April 8, 2013 2:00 a.m.

On election night last November, when voters in Colorado and Washington passed ballot initiatives making their states the first to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, they set the stage for potentially landmark legal battles that could define the future of American drug policy. Since marijuana remains prohibited by federal law, President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder must decide whether to adopt a laissez-faire approach, signaling that the federal government will let states lead the way in dictating their pot policies, or to crack down on Colorado and Washington with lawsuits or arrests of those involved in the distribution of marijuana and even state officials who attempt to regulate and oversee the industry.Neither state’s new legalization laws have fully taken effect yet. In both Colorado and Washington lawmakers are currently working to decide precisely how to regulate and implement the sale of marijuana for recreational use. If the government allows this process to proceed, pro-pot activists believe it will open the floodgates for a slew of new marijuana reform laws in other states where reluctant officials are waiting to see how the federal government will handle the issue. Thus far, though, the White House and Holder’s Department of Justice have not indicated how they will handle the legalization laws.

A spokesman for the DOJ told TPM they are, “in the process of reviewing those initiatives.” The White House referred us to an interview President Obama gave to Barbara Walters last December in which he addressed the situations in Colorado and Washington.

“We’ve got bigger fish to fry,” Obama said. “It would not make sense for us to see a top priority as going after recreational users in states that have determined that it’s legal.”

That statement would seem to indicate the President has decided not to intervene in Colorado and Washington. But when President Obama initially took office, he similarly promised to take a laissez faire approach to states that legalized medical marijuana but followed that up by staging raids on hundreds of medical marijuana dispensaries and having federal agencies target banks and landlords that worked with the medical pot providers.

Now, state officials in Colorado and Washington are waiting to hear from Holder about whether he will fight the new marijuana laws. Whatever decision the Department of Justice makes, it seems both states are ready to fight for their right to legalize.

“We are proceeding in this state to implement the will of the voters,” Carolyn Tyler, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Attorney General told TPM last week.

“We intend to move forward with supporting the will of the people,” said Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

Officials from both Washington and Colorado met with Holder in recent weeks to discuss how the legalization policies are being implemented in their respective states and to ask for guidance from the federal government. But they don’t seem to have gotten much. Both Tyler and Ferguson characterized Holder as having not given much indication about what the federal government’s main concerns are and where he was in his decision-making process.

“They listened and did not communicate back,” Tyler said of the meeting.

“Obviously there’s parts of the conversation that, I’m sure you’ll understand, I don’t want to get into,” said Ferguson, who was present for Holder’s approximately 45 minute conversation with officials in Washington State. “But I think it’s fair to say that Attorney General Holder–it was a thoughtful conversation. He asked many questions about our initiative and we’ve been continuing to provide him information about the initiative and our process here in Washington State.”

As they wait for Holder to reveal how he will handle their marijuana laws, state officials in Colorado and Washington could also be preparing to do battle with the feds. Tyler would not say whether the attorney general’s office in Colorado is preparing to fight federal lawsuits.

“That’s just not something that I’m going to discuss,” Tyler said.

Attorney General Ferguson, on the other hand, said he’s readying to fight federal lawyers and said he made this clear to Holder during their meeting.

“I conveyed to him that we wished to avoid a legal fight, but that my office would be ready for litigation if that’s the direction the federal government chooses to go,” said Ferguson.

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