March 7, 2013

State marijuana laws a dilemma for Holder

Legalization by Washington and Colorado is at odds with both U.S. and some international law.

McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON - Attorney General Eric Holder is getting plenty of conflicting advice as he tries to figure out how the federal government should respond to the decision by voters in Washington state and Colorado to legalize marijuana for recreational use.

Eric Holder
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Attorney General Eric Holder, testifying Wednesday, faces policy opinions that range from leniency to nullification of new state laws.

The Associated Press


The national debate of recreational marijuana may eventually shape events in Maine.

Rep. Diane Russell, a Portland Democrat, has submitted a bill that seeks to legalize marijuana statewide so that it can be taxed and regulated much like alcohol. That bill has not been debated.

The Portland Green Independent Committee, meanwhile, plans to collect signatures for a referendum that would ask residents whether they want to legalize marijuana within city limits. A citywide vote could happen as early as November.

Maine also has a medical marijuana law that gives those with qualified medical conditions the right to grow their own marijuana, buy it from one of eight nonprofit dispensaries or buy from a certified caregiver.

The latest came Wednesday from Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who told Holder to focus on prosecuting larger federal crimes as he deals with the fallout of automatic spending cuts ordered by Congress.

"If you're going to be -- because of budget cuts -- prioritizing matters, I would suggest there are more serious things than minor possession of marijuana, but it's a personal view," Leahy told Holder, adding that other states are sure to follow the lead of Washington and Colorado.

While Leahy urged leniency, others want Holder to use his job as the nation's top law enforcement official to get tough with states that want to ignore federal drug laws.

On Tuesday, eight former Drug Enforcement Administration chiefs said the Obama administration should move aggressively to nullify the state legalization laws. And on the same day, a United Nations agency said the United States would be violating international drug treaties by allowing the state laws to stand.

Holder told senators that he's reviewing the states' new laws and plans a quick decision after having already met with governors of both states.

"We've had good communication. ... I expect that we will have an ability to announce what our policy is going to be relatively soon," Holder said.

With the state and federal laws clearly at odds, Holder is sure to face heat no matter what he decides. And so far, he has given little public indication of what he will do.

Marijuana advocates, however, are hoping that Holder's boss, President Obama, is on their side.

When the president was asked about the new state laws in an interview with ABC's Barbara Walters in December, Obama suggested that the federal government would be unlikely to take a hard line, saying: "We've got bigger fish to fry."

As both Washington and Colorado continue with their plans to open marijuana dispensaries later this year, the legalization issue promises to get more attention on Capitol Hill in coming weeks.

Leahy announced earlier that he wants his committee to conduct a hearing into the differences among state and federal marijuana laws.


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