Fed, states, U.N. face off on recreational marijuana laws
WASHINGTON (BP) -- Marijuana advocates and opponents are awaiting a decision from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who said he would announce soon whether the Justice Department will enforce the federal ban on marijuana.
During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing earlier in March, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D.-Vt., asked Holder if he was prepared to announce the federal government's response to new laws in Colorado and Washington legalizing marijuana for recreational use.
Both states, The Seattle Times reported, are proceeding with developing and implementing regulations but could face lawsuits from the federal government, which still classifies marijuana as a narcotic in the same category as heroin.
Holder said he had "good conversations" with elected officials in the two states, and he added, "We expect our ability to announce a policy relatively soon."
Alison Holcomb, who wrote Washington's new marijuana law, told The Times she was encouraged by the attorney general's brief answer because he made a point of commenting on his productive conversations with state leadership.
"That's important. If [the Department of Justice] intended to reject outright the citizens' efforts to reform our failed marijuana laws, there would be nothing to discuss," Holcomb said.
Observers, The Times said, believe Holder wants to learn more details of what the state-regulated marijuana market would look like before he announces a policy.
President Obama in December told ABC News his administration would not prosecute marijuana users in Colorado and Washington. "We've got bigger fish to fry," Obama said. "It would not make sense for us to see a top priority as going after recreational users in states that have determined that it's legal."
Barrett Duke, vice president for public policy and research at the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said the administration needs to be careful with this decision.
"Marijuana is a dangerous drug that creates multiple problems for those who use it. Future lives and livelihoods are at stake in this debate," Duke told Baptist Press. "President Obama's recent comment that he doesn't consider these state decisions to be a high-priority issue raises significant concerns for me about this administration's commitment to enforce federal law on marijuana use."
Duke added, "I am hopeful that Attorney General Holder will recognize the responsibility of his office to enforce the laws of the land and put a stop to the wrongheaded marijuana policy decisions of these states."
The Obama administration has chosen not to stand by federal law in at least one other major instance. In 2011, Holder announced the Justice Department would no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman.
Meanwhile, the United States has received a rebuke from the United Nations' drug-monitoring body which said the new laws in Colorado and Washington violate international drug treaties.
The International Narcotics Control Board, in its annual drug report released in March, called on the U.S. government to act "to ensure full compliance with the international drug control treaties on its entire territory."
"The entire international system is based on countries respecting the rules, and there's a broad fabric of international treaties that are part and parcel to that," David Johnson, the U.S. delegate to the Vienna-based board, told the Associated Press.
During a press conference in London, Raymond Yans, president of the INCB, denounced the recreational marijuana laws in Colorado and Washington as well as Massachusetts' recently becoming the 18th state to legalize marijuana for medical purposes.
The laws "undermine the humanitarian aims of the drug control system and are a threat to public health and well-being," Yans said, according to The Guardian March 5. He added that so-called "medicinal use" initiatives are little more than "a back-door to legalization for recreational use."
The INCB's report said that in some U.S. states, medical marijuana laws "are being operated in a way that is completely inappropriate and outside of the conventions."
Yans said the INCB had been reassured by Holder that federal laws banning the cultivation and possession of marijuana would remain in force, The Guardian reported. U.N. drug authorities also are awaiting Holder's upcoming announcement regarding federal enforcement, the newspaper said.
Gil Kerlikowske, director of the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy, appeared to support an enforcement of the federal ban in an interview with the Canadian news organization Maclean's, according to the Seattle Post Intelligencer.
The drug czar said a state by state patchwork of marijuana policies would "create real difficulties."
"We still have federal law that places marijuana as being illegal," Kerlikowske said. "The administration has not done a particularly good job of, one, talking about marijuana as a public health issue, and number two, talking about what can be done and where we should be headed on our drug policy."
Though Obama shifted his stance on same-sex marriage while in office, Kerlikowske doesn't think the administration should evaluate marijuana policy the same way.
"I don't look at marijuana as a human right, or a civil right, or even in the same venue as gay marriage," Kerlikowske said. "This is a public health issue. There are significant health concerns around marijuana from all the science, not ideology. I don't see the legalization of drugs and making them widely available as a good thing, and I don't think locking everyone up is a good thing either."
In January, a New York Times article titled "Legalizing of Marijuana Raises Health Concerns" stated, "For starters, this is not your parents' pot. Today's marijuana is much more potent: The mean concentration of THC, the psychoactive ingredient, in confiscated cannabis more than doubled between 1993 and 2008."
"It's much more potent marijuana, which may explain why we've seen a pretty dramatic increase in admission to emergency rooms and treatment programs for marijuana," Nora D. Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, told The Times.
People who start smoking marijuana at a younger age are more vulnerable, she said, noting that about one in six teenagers who use the drug will become addicted. Experts worry that marijuana's image is changing, The Times said.
"When people can go to a 'clinic' or 'café' and buy pot, that creates the perception that it's safe," A. Eden Evins, director of the Center for Addiction Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, told The Times.
"Before we unleash the powers of the marketplace to woo people to use this addictive substance, we need to better understand who is at risk," Evins said, adding that once moneyed interests are involved, the trend will be difficult to reverse.
USA Today reported March 14 that about 10 U.S. lawmakers, mostly liberal Democrats, are writing bills aimed at overturning the federal ban on marijuana.
"I've been working on this one way or another for 40 years, and I think the likelihood of something happening in the next four or five years is greater than ever," Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D.-Ore., said.
Rep. Jared Polis, D.-Colo., said more states will need to move in the direction of Colorado and Washington before there is sufficient pressure on Congress to change the law.
"It's harder to get the attention of members of Congress from states where the legal status has not been changed because it's simply not a relevant issue for their constituents," Polis said.
Erin Roach is assistant editor of Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress
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