WASHINGTON — 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.
Allen St. Pierre, the executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, a pro-legalization group in Washington, D.C., said Obama was regarded as an ally now even if he did nothing to actively promote legalization because he was likely to keep law-enforcement types in his administration – including the Justice Department and the drug czar – at bay.
He predicted that the landscape for legalization would look far different if either of Obama’s Republican opponents had won the last two presidential elections – Republican Sen. John McCain in 2008 or former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in 2012.
“If we had a President McCain or had Mr. Romney won, there is no way I would have any degree of buoyancy in my voice,” St. Pierre said.
Marijuana opponents say the administration has no choice but to stop Washington state and Colorado from selling marijuana for recreational use.
Tom Gorman, the head of the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Program in Denver, which coordinates federal and local drug-fighting efforts, said the states were busy designing plans to authorize and license individuals to violate federal law, which was a crime in itself.
“Frankly, everybody that has anything to do with this is engaged in a criminal act, because they’re conspiring to allow criminal enterprise to go in,” Gorman said.
Joyce Nalepka, who heads a Maryland-based organization called Drug-Free Kids: America’s Challenge, said Obama was obligated to shut down the states’ efforts immediately.
Christian Sederberg, a legalization supporter who’s worked closely with many of Colorado’s medical marijuana dispensaries, said the federal government’s response was an issue “on everyone’s minds” as the two states attempted to finalize their regulations.
“I’m hopeful that is a situation where they will let Colorado and Washington be the laboratories of democracy that is contemplated by our American society and allow this process to go forward,” he said.
The opponents appear to have the backing of Kerlikowske, whose official title is director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
At a news conference Wednesday at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, the drug czar boasted that the administration’s efforts in fighting drugs are paying off.
Overall since 2006, he said, cocaine use is down by 50 percent, while methamphetamine use has fallen by one-third. At the same time, Kerlikowske said, fewer Americans are driving after using illicit drugs and fewer are addicted to prescription drugs.
But in his official report to Congress outlining the new drug strategy, Kerlikowske says the nation continues to see “elevated rates of marijuana use among young people, likely driven by declines in perception of risk.”
To fight drug use, he says in the report, the administration wants Congress to approve more than $10.7 billion for drug-education programs next year and to provide more drug treatment for people with substance abuse disorders. Kerlikowske adds in the report that the administration’s request for 2014 also includes $9.6 billion for domestic law enforcement, $3.7 billion for interdiction and $1.5 billion for international programs.
“The economic toll that drugs take on our country is absolutely incredible,” the drug czar said Wednesday, estimating the cost at $193 billion per year.
Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, who appeared with the drug czar at the Baltimore news conference, said surveys of marijuana use now showed “the highest rates ever” for regular consumption by high school seniors, at 6.5 percent.
“It’s not just a problem of baby boomers,” she said.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts, who also appeared at the event, said that while heroin use posed a major problem in his city, he’d also witnessed “a significant uptick” in criminal activity and violence linked to marijuana.
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.”
Rebecca Lurye contributed to this report.
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