In Our View: Will Feds Rip New Pot Laws?

Either way Eric Holder decides, he's sure to anger many people

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Last December, when asked on an ABC-TV show if there would be a federal intervention into marijuana legalization laws passed in Washington and Colorado, President Barack Obama said, "We've got bigger fish to fry."On March 5, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, suggested the federal government has fewer bucks to spend, as well, and the Drug Enforcement Administration should not waste money or time chasing pot smokers in either state. Thus, marijuana reformists in both states have become strange new beneficiaries of the supposedly stark federal budget sequesters. The Washington Times reports that the Justice Department must cut more than $1 billion from its operations, which strengthens Leahy's recommendation to focus on major federal crimes and not worry about new laws in Washington or Colorado.

We should know soon about that federal response. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on March 5 told the Senate Judiciary Committee (chaired by Leahy): "I expect that we will have an ability to announce what our policy is going to be relatively soon."

Whatever he announces, Holder will draw criticism. On one side are pot doves like Leahy, described this way by The News Tribune in Tacoma: "(Leahy) wants to make sure that state laws are respected and that state officials in Washington and Colorado who are charged with the licensing of marijuana retailers will not face federal criminal penalties."

That's the most prudent approach, and with the sequester in place, it might be the only strategy Holder and the Justice Department can afford.

But on the other side are pot hawks like a United Nations agency that proclaimed Holder and his department would violate international drug treaties if they didn't find ways to repeal the state laws. Also, eight former DEA chiefs have declared that President Obama should move boldly to obliterate the people's initiatives in Washington and Colorado. Their letter read in part: "Sound drug policy must be rooted in evidence-based science, not driven by special-interest groups who are looking to profit at the expense of our nation's public health and safety."

Oh, really? They must be kidding. That's the first time we've heard voters in Washington and Colorado described as "special-interest groups."

Holder would do well to ponder the unintended consequence of marijuana prohibition, correctly described by former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson in an op-ed for the British daily newspaper The Guardian. Johnson wrote that, for decades now, myriad state and federal anti-pot laws "have turned millions of Americans into criminals and empowered murderous cartels, in the same way that Prohibition empowered Al Capone and an entire generation of organized crime."

In Washington and Colorado, Johnson accurately explains, voters found a better way. They "looked at those realities, and quite reasonably decided that the questionable benefits of treating marijuana use as a crime do not justify the considerable and unmistakable costs."

It won't be long before Americans learn if Holder shares Johnson's views.