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.”
Cannabis will remain a Schedule I controlled substance under the decision. Federal prosecutors will be left with the authority to interpret Cole’s directions and carry them out as they see fit.
But law enforcement opponents maintain marijuana continues to carry a devastating impact. More than 8,000 driving deaths related to drugs occur each year, many involving marijuana. Data from Colorado shows fatalities involving drivers testing positive for marijuana increased 114 percent between 2006 and 2011. From 2005 to 2008, the national average for emergency room admissions for marijuana-related incidents was 18 percent. In Colorado it was 25 percent.
In addition, officials documented major increases in marijuana exports from Colorado to other states between 2010 and 2012.
Regardless, marijuana legalization is growing across the country. Illinois is the latest to join the list, deciding that medical marijuana will be legal there beginning on Jan. 1.
Illinois will then become the 20th state to legalize marijuana for medical use. Washington and Colorado remain the only two states that have approved by referendum the drug for recreational use. Other states, like Wisconsin, Maine and Pennsylvania, are considering legislation to join the rising tide. A group calling itself the California Cannabis Hemp & Health Initiative received approval from the Golden State’s secretary of state to circulate a petition to legalize pot at the ballot box in the November 2014 election.
The effort continues to gain in popularity. Gallup released a survey on Oct. 22 showing for the first time that a clear majority of Americans – 58 percent — say marijuana should be legalized. This contrasts sharply with the national view in 1969 when Gallup first asked the question, finding then that only 12 percent favored legalization. Public support for legalization more than doubled in the 1970s, growing to 28 percent. It plateaued during the 1980s and 1990s before inching steadily higher since 2000, reaching 50 percent in 2011.
A sizable percentage of Americans, 38 percent, acknowledged trying the drug.
Opposition from law enforcement is not across the board. Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group consisting of police, judges, prosecutors, corrections officials and federal agents who oppose the nation’s War on Drugs, prevailed upon Holder to not interfere with the wishes of the voters who opt to legalize and regulate marijuana in their states.
“We seem to be at a turning point in how our society deals with marijuana,” said Neill Franklin, LEAP’s executive director. “The war on marijuana has funded the expansion of drug cartels, it has destroyed community-police relations and it has fostered teenage use by creating an unregulated market where anyone has easy access.”
Prohibition, Franklin said, has failed.
“Pretty much everyone knows it — especially those of us who dedicated our lives to enforcing it,” he said.