But on November 6, citizens in Colorado and Washington became the first to approve ballot initiatives legalizing the recreational use of marijuana. Their success illustrates growing tolerance and, indeed, support for a smarter approach that could change, and even save, countless lives.
Now, the question is how the federal government will respond to these new state laws, since they directly conflict with existing federal restrictions on drugs. Recreational use might be legal in the eyes of Colorado and Washington, but Uncle Sam can still put the boot down.
President Obama has a choice. He could direct the Department of Justice (DOJ) to crack down and prevent the two states from moving forward. Or he could finally, fully embrace sensible drug laws.
There are reasons to be encouraged. During the 2008 campaign, Obama pledged to leave state medical marijuana laws alone. He seemed to sympathize with the African American and Latino communities, disproportionate casualties of the drug war. Surely, Obama knew that one chance run-in between his youthful “choom gang” and the police years ago would have deprived him of the office he holds today.
In October 2009, the DOJ declared that the federal government would not prosecute individuals, including distributors and cultivators, found in possession of marijuana, as long as they were complying with state medical marijuana laws.
The following year, President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which dropped the five-year mandatory minimum sentencing for simple possession of crack cocaine. The law also reduced the unjust disparity in federal sentencing for crack and powder cocaine.
But in October 2011, the DOJ began large-scale raids on medical marijuana cultivators and distributors, state law be damned. Federal authorities have since raided and shut down 600 dispensaries in California alone. A fine use of law enforcement resources in these austere times.
Enough is enough. The president should instruct the DOJ to de-prioritize marijuana-related cases in states that allow for medical marijuana, and to allow Colorado and Washington to move ahead with implementation of their new laws. He should ensure that federal appointees dealing with the issue, including U.S. Attorneys, are fair-minded.