The Obama administration has joined California's historic debate over legalizing marijuana, with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder vowing to "vigorously enforce" federal laws against pot even if state voters approve a Nov. 2 initiative legalizing its use for recreational purposes.

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The Obama administration has joined California’s historic debate over legalizing marijuana, vowing to “vigorously enforce” federal laws against pot even if state voters approve a Nov. 2 initiative legalizing its use for recreational purposes.

In a letter to former drug-enforcement administrators made public Friday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said prosecution of marijuana crimes is a “core priority” of the Department of Justice and would remain so regardless of whether Proposition 19 passes.

It was the first time Holder explained the position he would take if the recreational-use initiative becomes state law.

“Let me state clearly that the Department of Justice strongly opposes Proposition 19,” Holder said in the letter, dated Wednesday. “If passed, this legislation will greatly complicate federal drug-enforcement efforts to the detriment of our citizens.”

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Holder also said legalizing recreational marijuana would be a “significant impediment” to the government’s joint efforts with state and local law enforcement to target drug traffickers, who often distribute pot alongside harder drugs.

Proponents of Proposition 19 said Holder was “posturing. The reality is that the federal government has neither the resources nor the political will to undertake sole — or even primary — enforcement responsibility for low-level marijuana offenses in California,” said Stephen Gutwillig, California director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “Well over 95 percent of all marijuana arrests in this country are made by state and local law enforcement.”

California became the first state to authorize medical marijuana with Proposition 215 in 1996; since then, 13 other states, including Washington, and the District of Columbia have followed suit.

The Bush and Clinton administrations took enforcement actions against medical-marijuana sellers and users after Proposition 215 passed, and the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 ruled that federal officials could prosecute medical-marijuana activities regardless of state legalization.

But the Obama administration last year said it would not prosecute medical marijuana in states where it is legal.

Vikram Amar, associate dean for academic affairs at the University of California, Davis School of Law, said the Obama administration clearly wanted to make a statement on recreational use before the November election.

“I think (Holder) is really trying to send a message that the earlier policy with respect to medicinal marijuana should not be confused with the policy on recreational marijuana,” Amar said.

Proposition 19 would make California the first U.S. state to authorize marijuana use for recreational purposes. The initiative would allow people 21 or older to possess up to 1 ounce of the drug and grow small gardens on private property. It would also allow local governments to tax and regulate the commercial sale of marijuana.

Supporters have suggested the legalization of recreational marijuana use would bolster cash-strapped governments in California and reduce costs for law enforcement and corrections.

Holder issued his memo in response to a letter sent in August by nine former administrators of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) urging him to take a stance on Proposition 19.

The former DEA officials said, “It is unlikely that any taxes will be paid, for doing so would admit criminal violation of federal law and expose the seller to federal prosecution.”

Amar agreed. He said that until the federal government decides it will not prosecute recreational use, few people would opt to sell openly.

“To pay taxes, you have to report the transaction,” Amar said. “By reporting the transaction, you are giving the federal government documentary evidence that you are violating the law.”

No matter what voters or Holder do, marijuana use in California these days appears, for all practical purposes, all but legal. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation last month that made possession of an ounce of marijuana punishable by a $100 fine.

Material from The New York Times and The Associated Press is included in this report.

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