WASHINGTON — Attorney General Eric Holder is getting plenty of conflicting advice as he tries to figure out how the federal government should respond to the decision by voters in Washington state and Colorado to legalize marijuana for recreational use.
The latest came Wednesday from Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who told Holder to focus on prosecuting larger federal crimes as he deals with the fallout of automatic spending cuts ordered by Congress.
“If you’re going to be – because of budget cuts – prioritizing matters, I would suggest there are more serious things than minor possession of marijuana, but it’s a personal view,” Leahy told Holder, adding that other states are sure to follow the lead of Washington and Colorado.
While Leahy urged leniency, others want Holder to use his job as the nation’s top law enforcement official to get tough with states that want to ignore federal drug laws.
On Tuesday, eight former Drug Enforcement Administration chiefs said the Obama administration should move aggressively to nullify the state legalization laws.
And on the same day, a United Nations agency said the United States would be violating international drug treaties by allowing the state laws to stand.
Holder told senators that he’s reviewing the states’ new laws and plans a quick decision after having already met with governors of both states.
“We’ve had good communication. . . . I expect that we will have an ability to announce what our policy is going to be relatively soon,” Holder said.
With the state and federal laws clearly at odds, Holder is sure to face heat no matter what he decides. And so far, he has given little public indication of what he will do.
Marijuana advocates, however, are hoping that Holder’s boss, President Barack Obama, is on their side.
When the president was asked about the new state laws in an interview with ABC’s Barbara Walters in December, Obama suggested that the federal government would be unlikely to take a hard line, saying: “We’ve got bigger fish to fry.”
As both Washington and Colorado continue with their plans to open marijuana dispensaries later this year, the legalization issue promises to get more attention on Capitol Hill in coming weeks.
Leahy announced earlier that he wants his committee to conduct a hearing into the differences among state and federal laws governing marijuana. He said he wants to make sure that state laws are respected and that state officials in Washington and Colorado who are charged with the licensing of marijuana retailers will not face federal criminal penalties.
Under federal law, marijuana remains a controlled substance, and possession or distribution of the drug is a criminal offense that can result in prison time.
In December, Leahy wrote a letter to the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, saying that his committee had “a significant interest” in the issue and that Congress could act to end the uncertainty facing residents in Washington and Colorado.
As one option, Leahy said, the Federal Controlled Substances Act could be changed to allow for the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana, at least in places where it’s already legal under state law.
In the House, two bills were introduced last month that would end the federal prohibition against marijuana and create new regulatory systems to deal with its legalization.
One, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Jared Polis of Colorado, would remove marijuana from the list of controlled substances and allow it to be regulated much like alcohol at the federal level. The second, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, would create a federal excise tax on the sale of marijuana.
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