WASHINGTON – Senior administration officials acknowledged Friday that they are wrestling with how to respond to the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington, which directly violates federal drug law and is sparking a broad debate about the direction of U.S. drug policy.
The most likely outcome will be that the Justice Department will prevent the laws from going into effect by announcing that federal law pre-empts the state initiatives, which would make marijuana legal for recreational use, law enforcement sources said. But the White House and the Justice Department have not made a decision yet, senior officials said.
“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.