WASHINGTON — After nearly two years of sending conflicting signals on the legalization of marijuana, the Obama administration finds itself under increased pressure from all sides to deliver a consistent message on where it stands.
Democratic senators from Washington and Colorado entered the fray Tuesday, releasing a letter that complained that federal agencies “have taken different approaches that seem to be at odds with one another.”
The senators — Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell from Washington and Mark Udall and Michael Bennet of Colorado — cited two decisions this year that have puzzled proponents and opponents alike.
In February, the administration said it would advise U.S. attorneys not to prosecute banks that illegally allowed marijuana stores to open accounts and accept credit card payments. But in May, the Bureau of Reclamation said it wouldn’t allow any federally controlled water to be used on marijuana crops because Congress had banned the drug.
The White House is getting an earful on the subject this week after The New York Times called Sunday for ending the national prohibition of marijuana.
While the senators want the federal government to back their states in taxing and selling marijuana to users older than 21, legalization opponents say President Barack Obama isn’t doing enough to enforce federal laws that prohibit the drug. They want him to convene a gathering of scientists and health care experts to put a spotlight on the issue.
“We can no longer accept a see-no-evil, hear-no-evil marijuana policy,” said Patrick Kennedy, a former Democratic congressman from Rhode Island who’s a co-founder of the anti-legalization group SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana). “Negative consequences are mounting.”
Washington and Colorado opened pot stores this year after voters in both states legalized marijuana in 2012. Colorado went first, in January, followed by Washington earlier this month. While the Justice Department said last August that it would allow the states to proceed, the White House said Monday that it remained opposed to national legalization.
“The administration’s position on this issue has not changed,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Monday.
Earnest said Tuesday that he hadn’t seen the senators’ letter, but he noted that the Department of Justice has established “some guidelines for administering the law in the unique circumstances that exist in Colorado and Washington state.” He said he was unaware whether the administration was reviewing agency policies, and he referred reporters to the separate agencies involved for more details on how they would untangle further conflicts.
On Monday night, the National Drug Control Policy Office, headed by acting Director Michael Botticelli, responded to The New York Times’ editorial, saying legalization “is not the silver bullet solution.”
“In its argument, The New York Times editorial team failed to mention a cascade of public health problems associated with the increased availability of marijuana,” the drug czar’s office said in a statement, adding that “any discussion on the issue should be guided by science and evidence, not ideology and wishful thinking.”
Among the health issues cited by the drug czar: Marijuana use is associated with cognitive impairment, hurts academic achievement, is addictive and affects reaction time, which can make it dangerous to drive.
In their letter, the senators said they understood the “legal complexity” surrounding marijuana issues but urged the White House to “assume a central and coordinating role” and to provide “uniform guidance” to all federal agencies and departments.
“Without such guidance, our states’ citizens face uncertainty and risk the inconsistent application of federal law in Colorado and Washington state, including the potential for selective enforcement actions and prosecution,” the senators said in a letter Monday to White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and Attorney General Eric Holder.
In his statement, Kennedy said administration officials were ignoring the marijuana issue, even though they had promised that the government “would be measuring and surveying the damage of legalization.”
“So far there has been nothing,” he said.
Backing Kennedy’s call for a summit, Dr. Stuart Gitlow, the president of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, said lawmakers and the media were sending a message to the public that marijuana use came with few negative consequences.
“It is time we all set the record straight,” he said.
Obama, who has acknowledged smoking marijuana while growing up in Hawaii, made headlines earlier this year when he said he thought that using marijuana was less harmful than consuming alcohol. In December 2012, just a month after the legalization votes in Washington state and Colorado, he said he had “bigger fish to fry” than to worry about recreational pot smoking in the states.
Mason Tvert, a spokesman for the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project, said it was clear that Obama “still has some evolving to do when it comes to marijuana policy.”
“The White House is clutching at straws to make its case that marijuana should remain illegal, and the hypocrisy is as glaring as ever,” he said. “President Obama has acknowledged that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol to the consumer, yet his administration somehow maintains the position that marijuana is just too dangerous to allow responsible adult use.”