Voters are set to cast their ballots in three Western states next month on whether to legalize the sale of marijuana for recreational use -- initiatives that would directly violate federal law, but that have drawn only silence from the Justice Department.
Despite the urging of drug enforcement experts, officials in Washington, D.C., have not said how the federal government would deal with possible state laws in Colorado, Washington and Oregon that would conflict with the federal Controlled Substances Act. Federal law prohibits the production, possession and sale of marijuana and classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, putting it in the same category as cocaine and heroin.
Nine former Drug Enforcement Administration administrators wrote a letter last month to Attorney General Eric Holder, urging him to publicly oppose the ballot initiatives that, if passed, would make the states the first in the nation to decriminalize marijuana for recreational use by adults.
"To continue to remain silent conveys to the American public and the global community a tacit acceptance of these dangerous initiatives," wrote the former administrators, who oversaw the DEA under both Democratic and Republican presidents from 1973 to 2007. "We urge you to take a public position on these initiatives as soon as possible."
Mr. Holder has not responded to the letter. The former officials are planning to hold a news conference Monday to press their concerns more publicly.
"The Justice Department should speak out ahead of the ballot initiatives to avoid immediate court action," said Peter Bensinger, who was DEA administrator from 1976 to 1981. "The initiatives will be in direct conflict with federal law, international treaty obligations and Supreme Court rulings."
The Justice Department can file suit to try to block state laws it deems to have violated federal statutes. It did just that, for example, after Arizona passed a law in 2010 that the state said was aimed at cracking down on illegal immigrants, but that the Obama administration believed was unconstitutional. In other cases, officials have simply made the Justice Department's stance clear ahead of ballot initiatives, as Mr. Holder did in 2010, when he said officials opposed a California measure to legalize marijuana.
But with the upcoming legalization initiatives, Justice spokeswoman Allison Price said the department would not comment. "We are not going to speculate on the outcome of various ballot initiatives state by state," she said.
Colorado's measure, known as Amendment 64, is the most likely to pass, according to observers and local polls. Under the measure, retail stores would be allowed to sell marijuana, and it would be taxed and regulated similarly to tobacco and alcohol. Growing operations would be legalized, as would "infusion factories" that could blend marijuana into brownies and candy bars and lollipops, according to Tom Gorman, director of the federal Rocky Mountain High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a group that brings together local, state and federal law enforcement officials. "It's illegal for a state to pass a constitutional measure that allows its citizens to violate federal law," he said.
The initiative has the support of 51 percent of voters, a Denver Post found.
Along with the Colorado ballot proposal, Initiative 502 in Washington and Measure 80 in Oregon would let people who are 21 and older buy marijuana from state-regulated shops. All three ballot initiatives are a step beyond the laws that have legalized marijuana for medical purposes.
Beginning with California in 1996, the District of Columbia and 17 states -- including these three states with the new ballot proposals -- have passed laws making it legal to manufacture, distribute and possess marijuana for such purposes. Arkansas has a similar measure on the ballot this year.