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Why Legal Pot Is the Future

Why the federal government should not crack down on Washington and Colorado.


It’s been exactly three weeks since Election Day, but the Obama administration still hasn’t said how it will respond to ballot measures legalizing pot in Colorado and Washington.

Since the drug remains illegal under federal law, the administration could squash the states’ nascent legalization movement by asking for courts to stop the implementation of the new laws, or by sending more federal agents to the states. But even though they knew the measures would be on the ballot for more than a year, “the Obama administration has stayed mum On The Other Big Thing That Happened on Nov. 6,” as Reason’s Mike Riggs  wrote yesterday.

Meanwhile, stakes have been raised: Prosecutors in  both stateshave dropped pot charges against hundreds of offenders, and legislators in Maine and Rhode Island are considering their own legalization bills.

What the administration will do remains entirely unclear, but it’s clear what they should do: nothing. Give the states a wide berth and see what happens. Not only is this good policy, but it turns out be good politics, as we’ll see in a minute.

But first, what might Obama do? No one knows  – perhaps not even those making the decisions — and there’s evidence pointing in all directions.

On one hand, the past four years do not bode well for Colorado and Washington. Obama has been, almost without a doubt,  the worst president in history on marijuana reform, presiding over unprecedented crackdowns on medical marijuana dispensaries in California despite promising during the 2008 campaign to respect state laws. While it’s unclear if this effort came from the White House, it could certainly have stopped it.

On the other hand, there’s some good reasons for reform advocates to hold out hope. As Emily Bazelon  noted in Slate, when Californians were considering a ballot measure to legalize recreational pot in 2010, Attorney General Eric Holder nipped the effort in the bud by putting out a stern statement well before Election Day. He warned that the federal government would enforce the federal ban on the law. This time around, there’s been no similar statement, even though Holder was  urged to make one by former drug enforcement officials. “To continue to remain silent conveys to the American public and the global community a tacit acceptance of these dangerous initiatives,” a letter addressed to Holder from the nine former DEA officials read. So maybe no news is good news.

There was also Marc Ambinder’s much buzzed about  report in July that Obama wanted to “pivot” on marijuana enforcement in his second term. The sourcing on that report was thin, but it would fit with Obama’s precedent on illegal immigration, for instance, where the administration made big turnaround with its deferred action plan after first deporting more immigrants than George W. Bush. Finally, as the Atlantic’s Jordan Weissmann wrote, the federal crackdown in California may be faulty precedent because that state’s law is so poorly written. Colorado and Washington learned from California’s mistakes and tightened their language to make it trickier for the feds to crack down.

Since we don’t know what the administration will do, perhaps the better question is what should they do? Timothy Egan  made a strong case this weekend in the New York Times for the moral and policy arguments that should keep the federal government out of Colorado and Washington’s prerogatives.

But there’s another reason Obama should leave the states be — it’s good politics. The success of the ballot measures illuminates a nascent and growing Pot Bloc that is just beginning to organize itself and could prove increasingly consequential in upcoming elections. In Colorado, a key presidential swing state, legalizing marijuana actually  got more votes than Obama.

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