As Washington state and Colorado wait to see whether the federal government will allow them to sell marijuana legally, the Obama administration is busy talking about the dangerous health effects of smoking pot.
When he went to Baltimore on Wednesday to announce the administration’s latest drug-fighting plan, drug czar Gil Kerlikowske said legalization was an “extreme” approach.
In a speech last week in Washington, D.C., Kerlikowske said the best government policy was one that discouraged the use of marijuana and made it less available.
Moreover, he said, the Justice Department is obligated to enforce the federal Controlled Substances Act, which bans marijuana.
“No state, no executive, can nullify a statute that’s been passed by Congress,” said Kerlikowske, the former police chief of Seattle, making a clear reference to the two states that in November approved the recreational use of marijuana by people 21 and older.
Despite the tough talk in public, the bigger focus is on what steps the administration is taking privately as it prepares to officially respond to the states that want to override the federal drug laws and sell pot in retail shops.
With U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder expected to announce a decision soon, pressure is mounting from both sides.
Drug opponents want the administration to block the states, saying the federal laws would become a farce if the states are allowed to ignore them.
Marijuana proponents want the administration not to intervene, saying individual states should have the right to decide whether to legalize the drug.
While the administration has given no public indication of what it will do, many pot advocates are confident they’ll have the upper hand once the smoke clears.
They note that President Barack Obama has admitted to smoking pot as a teen, and they think he’s unlikely to quash the will of voters in Washington state and Colorado, regardless of what his underlings might want to do.
Advocates say any move to come down hard on the states might be hugely unpopular. A poll by the Pew Research Center that was released earlier this month found for the first time that a majority of Americans — 52 percent — now back legalization.
Kerlikowske said that both legalization and an enforcement-only war-on-drugs approach were extreme solutions and the administration wanted to do more in the middle, preventing drug use and spending more on treatment for addiction.
As a police chief, Kerlikowske said, he’d often failed to understand that addiction was a disease that could be treated, but his views have changed.
One thing has remained consistent: his view that marijuana shouldn’t be legalized.
In 2009, Obama’s first year in office, the drug czar called legalization “a non-starter” for the president’s team.
But as he goes around the country these days speaking about the dangers of marijuana, Kerlikowske is quick to note that the administration’s response to Washington state and Colorado is now a legal matter that the Justice Department will decide.
He did that Wednesday as he wrapped up his news conference, but he added: “From our standpoint as a public health issue, nothing has changed as a result of those votes.”