WASHINGTON – The nation’s law enforcement establishment isn’t pleased with the Obama administration decision to ease the enforcement of federal drug laws in states that have legalized the use of marijuana.
Speaking before he introduced Attorney General Eric Holder at the International Association of Chiefs of Police convention in Philadelphia last week, organization president Craig Steckler said he was “disappointed” the Justice Department decided not to challenge laws in Washington and Colorado that permit personal use of cannabis for those over the age of 21.
Law enforcement, Steckler cautioned, may have “entered a slippery slope.”
“We think we’ve opened the floodgates to people who want to fully legalize all drugs,” said Steckler, the retired chief of the Fremont, Calif., police department. The remark drew a loud round of applause.
Holder didn’t directly address Steckler’s comments in his remark, saying only, “We may need marriage counseling.”
The Justice Department’s decision to honor – at least to some extent – state legalization laws has drawn strong objections since the policy was announced in late August. Various organizations ranging from the National Sheriffs Association to the National Narcotic Officers Associations’ Coalition have expressed displeasure with the decision.
In reaction, the leaders of six law enforcement organizations signed a letter addressed to Holder expressing opposition to the administration’s course of action. The decision to ease enforcement, they said, “ignores the connections between marijuana use and violent crime, the potential trafficking problems that could be created across state and local boundaries as a result of legalization and the potential economic and social costs that could be incurred.”
“Communities have been crippled by drug abuse and addiction, stifling economic productivity,” the group said. “Specifically, marijuana’s harmful effects can include episodes of depression, suicidal thoughts, attention deficit issues and marijuana has also been documented as a gateway to other drugs of abuse.”
The letter was endorsed by the Major County Sheriffs’ Association, the National Sheriffs’ Association, the Association of State Criminal Investigative Agencies, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the Major Cities Chiefs Police Association and the National Narcotic Associations’ Coalition. The group also complained that the Justice Department failed to consult with them before issuing the new policy statement regarding Washington and Colorado.
The Justice Department’s revised policy was outlined in a memorandum authored by Deputy Attorney General James Cole, who explained that the agency intended to devote its limited resources to more urgent needs. He told justice officials to refrain from interfering with state legalization efforts as well as those licensed to engage in the production and sale of marijuana.
Cole emphasized that the federal government has traditionally relied on state and local authorities to address marijuana activity through enforcement of their own narcotics laws. The decision to let Washington and Colorado move forward without federal interference is premised on the expectation that the states will implement strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems that address potential threats to public safety.
Prosecutors could receive a green light to step in if the state laws and regulations fail to prevent distribution to minors, revenue from sales going to gangs or cartels, operations from serving as a front for trafficking in other drugs, impaired driving and growing on public land.
“A system adequate to that task must not only contain robust controls and procedures on paper; it must also be effective in practice,” Cole wrote to the nation’s U.S. attorneys. “Jurisdictions that have implemented systems that provide for regulation of marijuana activity must provide the necessary resources and demonstrate the willingness to enforce their laws and regulations in a manner that ensures they do not undermine federal enforcement priorities.”