Pubdate: Sat, 16 Oct 2010
Source: Herald Journal, The (UT)
Copyright: 2010 The Herald Journal
Author: Marcus Wohlsen
Bookmark: (Proposition 19)


The U.S. government will "vigorously enforce" federal laws against 
marijuana even if voters next month make California the first state 
to legalize pot, Attorney General Eric Holder says.

Holder's warning, contained in a letter to ex-federal drug 
enforcement chiefs, was his most direct statement yet against 
Proposition 19, and it sets up another showdown with California over 
marijuana if the measure passes.

With Prop 19 leading in the polls, the letter also raised questions 
about the extent to which federal drug agents would go into 
communities across the state to catch small-time users and dealers, 
or whether they even had the resources to do it.

If the ballot measure passes, the state would regulate recreational 
pot use. Adults could possess up to one ounce of the drug and grow 
small gardens on private property. Local governments would decide 
whether to allow and tax sales of the drug.

But Holder stressed that the Justice Department remains committed to 
enforcing the Controlled Substances Act in all states.

"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," he wrote.

The letter was dated Wednesday and was obtained by The Associated Press.

Medical marijuana users and experts were skeptical, saying there was 
little the federal government could do to slow the march to legalization.

"This will be the new industry," said Chris Nelson, 24, who smokes 
pot to ease recurring back pain and was lined up outside a San 
Francisco dispensary. "It's taxable new income. So many tourists will 
flock here like they go to Napa. This will become the new Amsterdam."

Holder also said legalizing recreational marijuana would be a 
"significant impediment" to the government's joint efforts with state 
and local law enforcement to target drug traffickers, who often 
distribute pot alongside cocaine and other drugs.

The attorney general said the ballot measure's passage would 
"significantly undermine" efforts to keep California cites and towns safe.

Officials in Los Angeles County, where authorities have aggressively 
moved to tamp down on an explosion of medical marijuana dispensaries, 
vowed that they would still assist the federal government in drug 

County Sheriff Lee Baca and District Attorney Steve Cooley said at a 
news conference that the law would be unenforceable because it is 
trumped by federal laws that prohibit marijuana cultivation and possession.

"We will continue as we are today regardless of whether it passes or 
doesn't pass," Baca said. His deputies don't and won't go after users 
in their homes, but public use of the drug will be targeted, he said.

Both gubernatorial candidates _ Democrat Jerry Brown and Republican 
Meg Whitman _ oppose Prop 19 and declined comment Friday.

The ex-Drug Enforcement Administration chiefs sent a letter to Holder 
in August calling on the Obama administration to sue California if 
Prop 19 passes.

If California prevents police from enforcing the stricter federal ban 
on marijuana, the Supreme Court has ruled that the federal government 
cannot order local law enforcement to act, he said.

It "is a very tough-sounding statement that the attorney general has 
issued, but it's more bark than bite," said Robert Mikos, a 
Vanderbilt University law professor who studies the conflicts between 
state and federal marijuana laws.

"The same factors that limited the federal government's influence 
over medical marijuana would probably have an even bigger influence 
over its impact on recreational marijuana," Mikos said, citing not 
enough agents to focus on small-time violators.

Federal drug agents have long concentrated on big-time drug 
traffickers and left street-level dealers and users to local and 
state law enforcement. As police departments began enforcing 
California's medical marijuana law, the DEA only sporadically jumped 
in to bust medical users and sellers that local law enforcement was 
no longer targeting.

Allen Hopper, a drug law reform expert at the American Civil 
Liberties Union in Northern California, predicted that federal agents 
would selectively crack down on marijuana growers and merchants 
instead of going after every Californian who uses pot.

"They don't have the resources to flood the state with DEA agents to 
be drug cops," he said.

Nearly all arrests for marijuana crimes are made at the state level. 
Of more than 847,000 marijuana-related arrests nationwide in 2008, 
for example, just over 6,300 suspects were booked by federal law 
enforcement, or fewer than 1 percent.

Consequently, the fight over legalization may end up the same way 
medical marijuana did, experts said.

When Californians approved their first-in-the-nation medical 
marijuana law in 1996, Clinton administration officials vowed a harsh 
crackdown. But nearly 15 years later, California's billion-dollar 
medical marijuana industry is thriving.

During the Bush administration, retail pot dispensaries across the 
state faced regular raids from federal anti-drug agents. Their owners 
were sometimes sentenced to decades in prison for drug trafficking. 
Yet the medical marijuana industry still grew.

Besides California, 13 other states and the District of Columbia have 
legalized medical marijuana in recent years.

At the San Francisco Medical Cannabis Club, where you can buy 
marijuana-filled carrot cake and lollipops, manager James Kyne said 
the federal government would just be continuing "an endless cycle" 
with little positive effect.

Holder "is opening a bigger can of worms," Kyne said.

Associated Press writers Pete Yost in Washington, Terry Collins and 
Lisa Leff in San Francisco, Samantha Young in Sacramento and Robert 
Jablon in Monterey Park, Calif., contributed to this report.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom