Adam Nagourney in the New York Times was not paying much attention the first time California voters fought back against the drug war:
Washington has generally looked the other way as a growing medical marijuana industry has prospered here and in 14 other states and the District of Columbia, but Mr. Holder’s position — revealed in a letter this week to nine former chiefs of the Drug Enforcement Administration that was made public on Friday — made explicit that legalizing marijuana for recreational use would bring a whole new level of scrutiny from Washington.
To say that the Federal Government has “generally looked the other way” as medical marijuana has been introduced in over a dozen states is a fairly big misreading of the history. Previous to Obama, both the Clinton and Bush Administrations aggresively targeted medical marijuana providers in all states where it was legal. Under Obama, the DOJ publicly promised that they’d leave the states alone, but they haven’t lived up to that pledge. Even Congress has been unable to pass legislation that would’ve made it impossible to use federal resources to undermine state medical marijuana laws (side note: both Rick Larsen and Dave Reichert voted to continue to have the feds come into Washington to undermine our medical marijuana laws).
It’s worth pointing this out because Nagourney makes it sound as if this time it’ll be different. It won’t. As Dan Riffle points out in this post, the Federal Government would be powerless to overturn a successful vote in California to remove the state-level penalties on marijuana (even if whack-job Scientology-promoting sheriffs believe that they make the laws). Their only option is the enforce the law themselves, something that they have neither the manpower – or the political will – to accomplish.
Even so, it’s hard to know exactly how it will play out if Proposition 19 passes. Just because the Federal Government doesn’t appear to have much of a leg to stand on doesn’t mean that they’ll back down. It will certainly trigger some kind of a fight, but just as with medical marijuana, the will of the people and the forces of the market will eventually outlast it. But that’s still only part of what we’ll see if this domino falls.
What I think will be more interesting is to see what occurs outside of our borders. One of the particularly egregious aspects of our drug war is how effectively we’ve been able to force other countries to keep their marijuana laws in line with ours. In the recent ACLU forum, Rick Steves provided his perspective on this, noting that some countries enforce their marijuana laws solely to retain favored trade status with the U.S. If the U.S. isn’t able to maintain that level of control over one of its own states, it’s likely to change the perspective of those outside the U.S. looking in.