UPDATE: Ex-DEA heads: Feds should challenge state pot laws

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Updated: March 5, 2013, 8:13 PM

 

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United Nations: Colorado, Washington legal pot violates drug treaties

CHICAGO — Eight former U.S. drug chiefs warned the federal government Tuesday that time is running out to nullify Colorado and Washington’s new laws legalizing recreational marijuana use, and a United Nations agency also urged challenges to the measures it says violate international treaties.

The former Drug Enforcement Administration chiefs criticized Barack Obama’s administration for moving too slowly to sue to force the states to rescind the legislation. Marijuana is illegal under federal law.

“My fear is that the Justice Department will do what they are doing now: do nothing and say nothing,” former DEA administrator Peter Bensinger said Monday. “If they don’t act now, these laws will be fully implemented in a matter of months.”

Bensinger warned of “a domino effect” in which other states legalize marijuana too.

The statement from the DEA chiefs came the same day the International Narcotics Control Board, a U.N. agency, released an annual drug report, in which it called on U.S. officials to “ensure full compliance with the international drug control treaties on its entire territory.”

But Brian Vicente, co-author of the Colorado law, said a handful of North American countries have expressed support for legalization. “You have two states revolting and they’re saying it doesn’t work in their state and their community and it sends a strong message globally.”

A lawyer who led Washington’s legalization campaign said the focus should be on reconciling the Colorado and Washington votes with federal law and treaty obligations. “Ultimately, we do need to see these laws and treaties change,” Alison Holcomb said Tuesday. “We’re not going to get resolution overnight.”

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told a meeting of state attorneys general last week that his review of the laws is winding down.

The Department of Justice could sue to block the states from issuing licenses to marijuana growers, processors and retail stores, on the grounds that doing so conflicts with federal drug law. Alternatively, Holder could decide not to mount a court challenge.

The ex-DEA heads are issuing the statements through the Florida-based Save Our Society from Drugs. They are Bensinger, John Bartels, Robert Bonner, Thomas Constantine, Asa Hutchinson, John Lawn, Donnie Marshall and Francis Mullen. They served for both Republican and Democratic administrations.

Holder is scheduled to appear today at a U.S. Senate judiciary committee hearing. The former DEA chiefs want senators to question him on legalization.

Advocates of legalization welcome the new laws, arguing that criminalizing drugs creates serious if unintended social problems. The ex-DEA heads say they disagree with that.

Bensinger — who served as DEA administrator under Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan — said the supremacy of federal law over state law when it comes to drug laws isn’t in doubt. “This is a no-brainer,” he said. “It is outrageous that a lawsuit hasn’t been filed in federal court yet.”

Advocates of less stringent drug laws criticized the ex-DEA heads later Tuesday.

Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance, said the eight are destined to share the legacy of agents who enforced alcohol prohibition before that policy was deemed a failure and reversed in 1933. “The former DEA chiefs’ statement can best be seen as a self-interested plea to validate the costly and failed policies they championed but that Americans are now rejecting at the ballot box,” he said.