Eight former U.S. drug chiefs warned the federal government Tuesday that time is running out to nullify Washington and Colorado’s new laws legalizing recreational marijuana use, and they want a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday to question Attorney General Eric Holder on his plans.
The federal government still considers marijuana an illegal drug with no medical value, like heroin. Holder recently said his decision on how to respond to legal marijuana for adult use in the two states is imminent.
The former Drug Enforcement Administration chiefs criticized Barack Obama’s administration for moving too slowly to file a lawsuit that would force the states to rescind the legislation.
“My fear is that the Justice Department will do what they are doing now: Do nothing and say nothing,” former DEA Administrator Peter Bensinger said Monday. “If they don’t act now, these laws will be fully implemented in a matter of months.”
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Bensinger, who lives in the Chicago area, said if the federal government doesn’t immediately sue the states it will risk creating “a domino effect” in which other states legalize marijuana, too.
State Attorney General Bob Ferguson said he’s ready to respond legally if the federal government challenges Washington’s legal pot law enacted by Initiative 502.
“I understand their perspective,” Ferguson said of the ex-DEA chiefs. “But my job as lawyer for the state is to uphold Initiative 502 and that’s what I intend to do.”
The statement from the DEA chiefs came the same day the International Narcotics Control Board, a U.N. agency, made its appeal in an annual drug report, calling on federal officials to act to “ensure full compliance with the international drug control treaties on its entire territory.”
Key figures in Washington’s legal pot law said there’s nothing new or particularly relevant in the former DEA chiefs’ stance.
The author of Washington’s new law, Alison Holcomb, said the anti-drug warriors are reprising the same arguments they used in campaigns against the two states’ new laws last year. “They’re not raising new issues. They’re arguing we need to stick with the status quo,” said Holcomb, drug-policy director for the ACLU of Washington.
The federal war on drugs has been an “abject failure,” said Rep. Chris Hurst, D-Enumclaw, who leads state House oversight of the new law. Hurst accused the ex-DEA chiefs of “irrelevant meddling.”
A former narcotics detective, Hurst said Washington residents have the right to determine their destiny. “I stand with the citizens of Washington to try and get it right,” said Hurst.
Many, including the former DEA chiefs and Holcomb, speculate that Holder may reveal his policy at Wednesday’s meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington, D.C.
Holcomb said she has no “inside line” to the Department of Justice and no solid information on Holder’s thinking.
Holcomb said the United Nations’ concern is another issue raised frequently since California legalized medical marijuana in 1996. Federal officials should modify treaty obligations to allow states’ rights, she said.
The federal government should retain jurisdiction over international matters, Hurst said, and states certainly shouldn’t export marijuana to other countries. “But I think Washington state is being careful to make sure that’s not happening. Washington’s path is not an abandonment of law or civilized process. It is tight regulation and control,” Hurst said.
John McKay, former top federal prosecutor for Western Washington, said the demand by ex-DEA chiefs for a federal lawsuit is misguided.
“I think the appropriate path is being taken in dialogue between the states and the Department of Justice,” said McKay, a sponsor of I-502. “We can come to common ground here, which is we all want to get rid of drug cartels.”
Nothing has changed for the Washington State Liquor Control Board, the state agency charged with implementing the new legal pot law. “We’re moving forward,” said agency spokesman Brian Smith.
The agency will hold the last of eight statewide public forums at the Kitsap Conference Center in Bremerton on Thursday evening. The agency hopes to announce next week the consultants it will hire to provide weed expertise. State officials are now evaluating and scoring proposals from 54 legitimate applicants.
Holder told a meeting of state attorneys general last week that he is still reviewing the laws but that his review is winding down. Asked for a comment on the criticism from the former DEA administrators, Holder spokeswoman Allison Price would only say, “The Department of Justice is in the process of reviewing those initiatives.”
The department’s review has been under way since shortly after last fall’s elections. It could sue to block the states from issuing licenses to marijuana growers, processors and retail stores, on the grounds that doing so conflicts with federal drug law. Alternatively, Holder could decide not to mount a court challenge.
The ex-DEA heads are issuing the statements through the Florida-based Save Our Society from Drugs.
The former DEA administrators are Bensinger, John Bartels, Robert Bonner, Thomas Constantine, Asa Hutchinson, John Lawn, Donnie Marshall and Francis Mullen. They served both Republican and Democratic administrations.
Seattle Times staff reporter Bob Young contributed to this report.