The Clinton Herald
---- — The Des Moines Register, Sept. 4
The Obama administration’s announcement that it will not aggressively enforce federal marijuana laws in states that have legalized recreational use of the drug is more symbolic than substantive. It is, however, evidence of the nation’s waning appetite for the war on drugs.
The U.S. Justice Department memorandum was prompted by voter-approved constitutional amendments in Washington and Colorado to legalize personal possession and use of marijuana. Those state laws conflict with acts of Congress that make it a federal crime to distribute and possess marijuana. Thus, the administration avoided a confrontation between the feds and the states, at least for now.
That’s a good thing. If the people of Colorado and Washington in their wisdom decide to legalize recreational use of marijuana, it’s hard to see why the federal government should interfere with that decision.
The administration’s policy is not exactly new, however.
The Justice Department took a similar position with states that legalized use of marijuana for medical purposes, and the memo notes that “the federal government has traditionally relied on states and local law enforcement agencies to address marijuana activity through enforcement of their own narcotics laws.”
The Justice Department rightly deemed it a waste of resources to go after individuals for possession of “small amounts of marijuana for personal use on private property.”
That is the way it should work. Historically, local crime enforcement was the exclusive province of the state police, prosecutors and courts. The federal government’s role was to assist local authorities when major criminal syndicates cross state lines or when there is a national interest.
It’s hard to see a national interest in federal prosecutions of small-time drug users and dealers. That is why U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder last month announced he was directing federal prosecutors around the country to turn their focus away from low-level drug offenders.
This does not mean the federal government will entirely back off from enforcing drug laws, nor should it. There is a difference between marijuana and heroin, for example.
But there must be a clear federal interest. The Justice Department memo cites several such interests, including preventing distribution of marijuana to minors and to states that have not legalized the drug. The department did not foreclose federal intervention if states do not aggressively enforce local laws to protect those interests.
The Justice Department memo drew sharp rebukes from predictable sources, including state and local law-enforcement and advocates of tough enforcement of drug laws. Otherwise the news was mostly greeted with a yawn.
This is evidence that the nation, if not totally convinced on drug legalization, is ready for an end to the war on drugs. This misdirected war has come at a huge cost to law enforcement, courts and prisons, not to mention people and families unnecessarily ensnared in the criminal justice system.
A growing consensus is that drug abuse should be seen as a treatment issue, not strictly as a crime. Certainly not a crime that requires the resources of the federal government, as the Obama administration policy rightly makes clear.