In the waning days of a campaign to legalize marijuana in California two years ago, all nine ex-directors of the Drug Enforcement Administration simultaneously urged Obama officials to come out in strong opposition.
The pressure worked: Attorney General Eric Holder declared his office would “vigorously enforce” the federal ban on marijuana “even if such activities are permitted under state law.”
Whether that was a real threat or just posturing is unclear: California voters rejected Proposition 19.
The test case instead could be Washington, where voters on Nov. 6 will decide whether to directly confront the federal ban on marijuana and embrace a sprawling plan to legalize, regulate and tax sales at state-licensed pot stores.
Speculation on the potential federal blowback is rife.
Would the Obama administration pick a legal fight over states’ rights to try to block Initiative 502? Would federal prosecutors charge marijuana growers and retailers, even if they are authorized by state law?
Or would — as some opponents and supporters predict — federal authorities denounce the law but largely leave Washington alone?
The Justice Department won’t say. But legal and drug-policy experts, asked recently to speculate, say any federal response is likely to be dictated as much by politics as by law.
Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, an I-502 supporter who talks frequently with federal authorities, thinks the Justice Department would back off after “a long, intense, fairly high-level conversation” with campaign and state officials.
“In the end, I think the feds will go with the will of the voters,” said Holmes.
Since the legalization movement took hold in the 1970s, at least 11 states — most recently, Rhode Island in 2012 — and several large cities have stripped criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana, usually making it an infraction akin to a ticket.
Full legalization has been proposed and rejected by voters in Alaska, California and Nevada, and is on the ballot this November in Colorado and Oregon.
I-502 is the most comprehensive proposal yet. It legalizes one ounce of marijuana for people 21 and older, and creates a seed-to-store, closed, state-regulated monopoly estimated to raise more than $560 million in new taxes.