Before more states legalize pot, Obama must enforce federal law

Former DEA chiefs and an international anti-drug body advise President Obama and the Justice Dept. to uphold federal anti-marijuana law against legalization by Colorado and Washington states. Why not listen to those on the front lines of the drug wars?

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Peter Bensinger, a former head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, is one of eight former DEA chiefs who say the federal government needs to act now or it might lose the chance to nullify Colorado and Washington's laws legalizing recreational marijuana use.

When US Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. testifies before Congress on Wednesday, we hope he finally makes clear that federal drug law trumps state legalization of marijuana.

Voters in the states of Colorado and Washington approved legalizing “recreational” use of marijuana last November. But both Mr. Holder and President Obama have yet to publicly point out that the federal Controlled Substances Act, which classifies pot as a Schedule I drug, is still on the books and worth enforcing.

Because of the Justice Department’s four-month silence on those state measures, prominent voices from the front lines of the drug wars have come forward to advise the administration to uphold federal supremacy in the enforcement of drugs, simply because drug dealers easily cross state lines.

One warning comes from eight former chiefs of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) who served under both Democratic and Republican presidents. On Tuesday, they advised that a federal crackdown is needed soon to send a message to other states that may be tempted to legalize pot. Colorado and Washington need to be stopped before the implementation of their laws gets too far along, they said. Specifically, the Justice Department must sue these states to block them from issuing licenses to marijuana growers and stores.

Another warning comes from the quasi-judicial body that monitors compliance of countries that have signed anti-narcotic treaties. In its annual report Tuesday, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCD) called on the United States to “ensure full compliance” with those international agreements, such as the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.

The board’s head, Raymond Yans, says that state legalization in the US will give a “false impression that drug abuse might be considered normal and even, most disturbingly, safe.” And the American delegate to the Vienna-based INCD, David Johnson, also warned that the US – which is the biggest market for illegal drugs – needs to respect anti-narcotics treaties in order to help uphold their legitimacy worldwide.

One signal of how the Justice Department might move is that it has been cracking down on many pot dispensaries in states that have so far legalized marijuana for only medical use. And Obama officials have warned a few Latin American countries not to consider legalization.

In addition, a federal appeals court ruled in February that the DEA’s classification of marijuana as a dangerous drug need not be changed.

For political reasons, Mr. Obama may be tempted to ask Congress to lower the federal punishment of those caught with small amounts of marijuana. But that would also send the wrong signal and won’t settle the fact that federal drug laws must supersede state law.

More than two-thirds of eighth-graders in the US see regular use of marijuana as harmful. If such innocents can perceive that, then surely the federal government can live up to both domestic and international law on pot.

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