December 7, 2012

AP photo/Marco Ugarte

I’m with Andrew Sullivan: Don’t do it, Mr. President.

The Times reports today that White House and Justice Department officials are debating whether to take legal action to undermine initiatives that legalized recreational marijuana use in Colorado and Washington State.

I’m not too worried about this — yet. That’s because the story suggests that a decision is very far off, mostly because serious legal and policy complications are arising as officials contemplate their range of options.

That said, what is worrying about the story is that the possibility of very aggressive federal responses appears to be on the table. Among them: Suing the states by arguing that state regulation of pot is preempted by federal law. This would block states from setting up any systems to regulate marijuana use that was legalized by popular vote. As Radley Balko put it: “More Coloradans voted for pot than for Obama.”

Now, on the one hand, it’s admittedly hard for liberals to argue that the federal government doesn’t have the legal authority to do this. But on the merits, there’s an argument to be made that pursuing this course of action would undermine one of Obama’s own long-held moral positions.

 Back in July, Marc Ambinder reported that Obama is planning to pivot to tackling the War on Drugs in his second term. I don’t know if this is true or not. But this, from Ambinder, does ring true: “from his days as a state senator in Illinois, Obama has considered the Drug War to be a failure, a conflict that has exacerbated the problem of drug abuse, devastated entire communities, changed policing practices for the worse, and has led to a generation of young children, disproportionately black and minority, to grow up in dislocated homes, or in none at all.”

 If Obama believes those things, and I don’t doubt that he does, that alone would recommend against an aggressive federal response to the Colorado and Washington State initiatives — which, in effect, would re-criminalize something that’s been legalized by popular vote in those states. After all, few things would undermine the War on Drugs more effectively than legal marijuana failing to result in the Armageddon drug warriors predict it will. And as Obama’s handling of gay marriage suggests, he firmly believes that one way to bring about lasting progress and change is to create an environment in which public opinion can continue to evolve in the right direction. Surely Obama wouldn’t want to actively interfere with public attitudes that are slowly marching forward, would he?

 I’ve seen some suggestions to the effect that the Times story is a “trial balloon.” The story doesn’t read that way to me — it looks more like there are very serious deliberations going on and that no one has any idea what will be decided in the end. But still — there is clearly a process underway, so if you care about this issue, the time to make your feelings known is right now.

 

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.