“I really don’t know what we’re going to do,” said one high-ranking law enforcement official involved in the decision who was not authorized to speak publicly.
Washington state and Colorado approved initiatives on Tuesday to decriminalize the possession of less than an ounce of marijuana. Oregon defeated a similar measure. Up to this point, the Justice Department and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy have been mute about the ballot initiatives. Before the election, the Justice Department did not respond to nine former administrators of the Drug Enforcement Administration who wrote a letter urging the administration to take a stance on the ballot proposals in all three states.
One administration official Friday suggested that the administration’s silence was a deliberate strategy to avoid antagonizing liberal voters in Colorado, a crucial swing state.
“It was a battleground state,” said the administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk publicly.
In similar instances, officials have made the administration stance clear ahead of votes. In 2010, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said that the administration opposed a pending California measure to legalize marijuana. That same year, the Justice Department sued Arizona to block its law cracking down on illegal immigrants because the administration said it violated federal statutes and was unconstitutional.
Rafael Lemaitre, spokesman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said he could not comment on the marijuana initiatives or discuss how the administration will respond. He deferred questions to the Justice Department. Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said at the press briefing Friday only that the Justice Department was reviewing both initiatives. Justice spokeswoman Nanda Chitre would not comment except to say that the department is “reviewing the ballot initiatives.”
The Colorado and Washington laws go beyond provisions for the medical use of marijuana. The District and 18 states have passed laws making it legal to manufacture, distribute and possess marijuana for medicinal purposes.
While the Justice Department figures out how to respond, state and local officials in Colorado, Washington — and Mexico — are confused about how to proceed. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) and the state’s attorney general spoke to Holder on Friday.