In a letter to former chiefs of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Attorney General Eric Holder says the Justice Department will prosecute distribution and possession of marijuana in California even if the state’s voters approve Proposition 19. He says the department remains firmly committed to enforcing the federal Controlled Substances Act in all states.
Stephen Gutwillig, California director of the Drug Policy Alliance offered this statement:
The Attorney General’s posturing notwithstanding, this is 1996 all over again. Naysayers said then that the passage of Proposition 215, California’s medical marijuana law, would be a symbolic gesture at most because the federal government would continue to criminalize all marijuana use. Today more than 80 million Americans live in 14 states and the District of Columbia that have functioning medical marijuana laws. All that happened without a single change in federal law.
Under our system of government, states get to decide state law. There is nothing in the United States Constitution that requires that the State of California criminalize anything under state law. If California decides to legalize marijuana through the passage of Proposition 19, nothing in the Constitution stands in the way. In fact, Congress has explicitly left to the states wide discretion to legislate independently in the area of drug control and policy. States do not need to march in lockstep with the federal government or even agree with federal law.
The reality is that the federal government has neither the resources nor the political will to undertake sole — or even primary — enforcement responsibility for low level marijuana offenses in California. Well over 95% of all marijuana arrests in this country are made by state and local law enforcement. The federal government may criminalize marijuana, but it can’t force states to do so, and it can’t require states to enforce federal law.
As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis explained more than 70 years ago: “It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”
States were intended by the Framers to serve as laboratories, and are free to enact new and innovative marijuana laws, and to explore whether there is a better way. Proposition 19 is exactly that.