Atty. Gen. Eric Holder finally set the record straight about landmark marijuana legalization laws in Colorado and Washington State: The federal government will not interfere with state legalization laws. Paving the way for other legalization bills and initiatives across the country, local, state and federal law enforcement will have to catch up with the changing laws about marijuana. Under the 1906 Controlled Substance Act, narcotics, like opium, became banned and regulated, lumping in marijuana and its many varieties, including hashish. Over 200 drug laws were passed, leading to the 1938 Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, 1962 Kefauver Harris Amendment regarding drug effectiveness and the Nixon administration-sponsored the 1970 Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, where marijuana was lumped in with heroin and other narcotics, ultimately leading the 1973 Drug Enforcement Administration.
Given all the disinformation about marijuana over the last 40 years, it’s going to take time before law enforcement can come up to speed on legalizing marijuana. A long time coming, Atty. Gen. Eric Holder was forced by 2012 legalization bills in Washington State and Colorado to rule on the DEA’s position on enforcing current federal drug laws. When Holder said Aug. 30 the federal government would no longer enforce federal drug statutes in states with legalization laws, it changed everything. “This [Holder’s] memo appears to be sending the message to states regarding marijuana prohibition that is a recognition that a majority of the public and in some states major of law makers no longer want to continue down the road of illegal cannabis and would rather experiment with difference regulatory schemes of license and retail sale of cannabis,” said Paul Armantano, Deputy Director of the pot lobby NORML.
When California passed Prop 215 The Compassionate Use Act Nov. 5, 1996, law enforcement insisted marijuana was a “gateway” drug leading to more dangerous drug abuse. After 17 years of medically prescribed cannabis, there’s been no increase in pot smoking or dangerous drug addiction, paving he way for today’s legalizations laws. “It certainly appears to be potentially the beginning of the end,” said Armantano, referring to the end of the federal government’s ban on marijuana. Holder said in his memo as long as states have a regulatory scheme for controlling the consumption, growing, sale and distribution, then the DEA will no longer get involved. State legalization laws seek to control marijuana for non-medical, recreation use, something akin to current controls on alcohol and tobacco. Legalization attempts to give states a way to end the current prohibition and tax manufacture and sale of marijuana.
Highlighting law enforcement’s objections to legalization, Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of the Police, the nation’s largest police union, expressed disappointment over Holder’s decision. “I would tell you that certainly the overwhelming majority of law enforcement officers oppose legalization,” said Pasco, reflecting the long history of prosecuting federal, state and local drug crimes, lumping cannabis into the same category as other dangerous drugs. Unfamiliar with the history, especially the 1970 Nixon-sponsored Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, law enforcement personnel only know what they’re told. “It is from our perspective a gateway drug and opinions to the contrary don’t have the weight of fact behind them,” said Pasco, showing the entrenched thinking that won’t easily change in anti-drug circles, especially the law enforcement community.
Law enforcement often speaks of the so-called “gateway” effect where users move from pot to more dangerous drugs. Pacso reflects the lack of research-based thinking that permeates the debate about legalization. Law enforcement shouldn’t have, as Pasco says, a “perspective” on the “gateway” idea or any other aspect of the legalization debate. Once state legislators, ballot initiatives and agencies of the federal government pass new laws or change polices, it’s up to Pasco to inform his constituents about those changes, not opine about controversial topics like the “gateway” drug theory. “We want to talk to [the DOJ] about their thought process and ours and where the disconnect is,” said Pasco, showing his fixation. Law enforcement performs a job to uphold existing laws, not to question the wisdom, logic or advisability of the DOJ’s decision to stop enforcing federal drug laws about marijuana.
Holder’s landmark decision to stop enforcing federal drug laws on marijuana in states with legalization laws, like Colorado and Washington, moves the debate in a progressive direction. While it will take time for law enforcement to catch up, reforming the 1970 Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act to remove marijuana would be a good start. Keeping cannabis on the same list as heroin or other narcotics continues to disinformation that marijuana is a dangerous drug leading to pernicious abuse. “From our perspective, the only fault with the status quo is that we aren’t making a bigger dent and we’d like to make a bigger one,” said Pasco, spouting the same ignorant views that filled the nation’s prisons with marijuana offenders. Holder’s decision hopefully makes a “dent” in the public’s misconceptions and government’s old propaganda campaign that continues the same old lies about marijuana.
About the Author
John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’s editor of OnlineColumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.