Marijuana in California: Prop. 19 won't stop federal drug enforcement
Even if voters pass Proposition 19 on Nov. 2, which would legalize use of marijuana in California, the Justice Department will continue to enforce federal drug laws there, Attorney General Eric Holder said Friday.
Should California voters approve Proposition 19, legalizing personal marijuana growth, use, and distribution on Nov. 2, the federal government says it will still prosecute violators of federal drug laws in the state.Skip to next paragraph
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On Friday, US Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Obama administration would “vigorously enforce” federal drug laws against people who sell, distribute or grow marijuana for recreational use.
Holder sent a letter to nine former chiefs of the US Drug Enforcement Administration, saying in part:
"Let me state clearly that the Department of Justice strongly opposes Proposition 19. If passed, this legislation will greatly complicate federal drug enforcement efforts to the detriment of our citizens." Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca hosted a news conference Friday morning to draw attention to the letter.
Prop. 19 would allow Californians 21 and older to grow up to 25 square feet of cannabis plants, and to possess up to an ounce of marijuana. It would also empower cities and counties to regulate marijuana cultivation and sales. Several municipalities are poised to do so if the law passes, with initiatives concerning taxation and regulation on the same ballot as Prop. 19.
Law professors and legal experts say the federal government will retain the right to prosecute federal drug offenses if Prop. 19 passes, but it's a matter of resources as to whether they will prosecute a wave of more confident growers and users.
“There is no question ... that California can pass a law saying it’s no longer illegal to have, grow, or smoke marijuana,” says Jesse Choper, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley’s Boalt School of Law. “But that has absolutely nothing to do with the continued existence of validity in enforcement of the federal statutes.”
He points out a 2004 challenge to the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA) – Gonzales vs. Raich – in which the US Supreme Court ruled that under the commerce clause of the US Constitution, Congress may ban home-grown cannabis even where states approve its use for medicinal purposes.
The federal government can enforce its drug laws however it wants, says Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of the Law School at University of California, Irvine. “It would not be that the US would have the initiative struck down, but it could go after those violating federal law.”