Colorado and Washington are blazing the trail, the first states to legalize recreational pot. But one thing remains the same on this new frontier – the muddled, sometimes contradictory, stand on marijuana from the Obama administration.
The zigs and zags in federal policy are making it more difficult for those states to make legalization work, and have also contributed mightily to California’s continuing medical marijuana mess.
To be fair, the lack of consistency reflects America’s ambivalence about a drug that many have used and a majority now want to legalize, but that many others see as harmful and that federal law bans. Still, the administration could do better at speaking with one voice.
This week, the four U.S. senators from Colorado and Washington released a letter complaining that federal agencies “have taken different approaches that seem to be at odds with each other.” Specifically, in February the administration advised federal prosecutors not to go after banks that allowed pot stores to open accounts and accept credit card payments. But in May, the Bureau of Reclamation said it would not allow any federal water to be used to irrigate marijuana crops because the drug is banned under the Controlled Substances Act.
More broadly, the Justice Department said last August that it would allow the two states to license and tax recreational pot, as long as they policed themselves properly. Then on Monday – a day after The New York Times editorial board called for ending the federal ban on marijuana and letting the states decide – the White House repeated that it opposes national legalization.
Then again, President Barack Obama, who smoked weed as a youth, says that he views using marijuana as a bad habit – like smoking. “I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol,” he told The New Yorker in an interview published in January.
If he truly believes that, he should have done more to take marijuana off the government’s Schedule 1 list – drugs with high potential for abuse but without any medical benefits. You can argue the health risks of smoking pot, but you can’t say it’s like shooting heroin or doing LSD, two other drugs on the list. This step would allow more research into marijuana’s medical uses and would lessen the conflict between federal law and statutes in states that permit medical pot.
California became the first, after voters here passed Proposition 215 in 1996. Then in 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the feds would no longer raid dispensaries in states where medical pot was legal. That led to an explosion in the marijuana business. Dispensaries started popping up everywhere, far beyond what was needed to serve people with a true medical need. To meet the demand, commercial-sized farms sprouted, as did illicit grows in national and state forests.
In late 2011, California’s four U.S. attorneys announced a crackdown on dispensaries they said had been “hijacked by profiteers.” Federal agents raided businesses and homes of pot entrepreneurs, seized bank accounts and threatened to seize property from landlords renting to marijuana outlets. An estimated 400 dispensaries shut down, and local governments followed with bans or severe restrictions.
So far, legislators and policymakers – local governments, law enforcement agencies, dispensaries, patient advocates and others – have been unable to agree on clear, common-sense rules statewide.
That’s a failure of leadership here, but the mixed messages from the White House certainly haven’t helped, as officials in Colorado and Washington state are finding out once again.