Obama administration close to responding to legalization initiatives – four months later
The question was posed, perhaps inevitably, by John Suthers, the state Attorney General of Colorado. It was directed toward Eric Holder, the Attorney General of the United States. It was a question both men had been asking themselves for a long time. What would the feds do about Amendment 64?
It’s a doozy. The successful ballot initiative which legalized adult use of cannabis last fall also directs the state bureaucratic arm to design and implement a system of regulation of cannabis businesses which cultivate and distribute the federally controlled substance. The last time a government body tried to set up a regulatory system for large-scale cannabis production was when the city council of Oakland, Calif. (2011) quickly backpedaled from their plan to license indoor production facilities after the U.S. Attorney for their district announced that the council members themselves would be personally indicted for running an organized crime operation. That move by itself created a great deal of acrimony toward the Obama administration in the city of 400,000 in desperate need of the lost tax revenues. But Colorado and her stalwart sister state in pot reform, Washington, are home to over 12,000,000 people, and Colorado in particular is a crucial swing state. November’s victories, both of which passed by wide margins, have upped the ante considerably.
Sutter posed the question to Holder at the National Association of Attorneys General’s annual conference in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday. Holder’s response?
“We’re still in the process of reviewing both of the initiatives that were passed… You will hear soon. We’re in the last stages of that review and we’re trying to make a determination as to what the policy ramifications are going to be, what our international obligations are – there are a whole variety of things that go into this determination – but the people of [Colorado] and Washington deserve an answer and you will have one soon.”
While we still don’t know what the specifics of the Obama pot doctrine will be, some matters may be safely assumed. One is that Holder (likely on orders from the White House) does not intend to repeat the blatant subversion of popular will the federal government exhibited in the Oakland affair. There is too much to lose down that path.
At the same time, Holder will not support any policy which has the likely result of rapidly dropping the street price of cannabis in Washington or Colorado. To do so would invite interstate trafficking on a scale even higher than currently exists in the U.S. – a contingency which would be equally disastrous, from Obama’s point of view.
So the tight balancing act Holder has to walk is to maintain a heavy hand of regulation without seeming to subvert the legalization experiment, and without allowing a huge drop in price. But it gets even harder than that, as the attorney general’s comments regarding international treaties reveal. The UN Single Convention on Narcotics, of which the U.S. is not only a signatory but the treaty’s primary sponsor when it was ratified in 1961, requires the federal government to treat marijuana the same as it does opium. Which introduces a new conundrum: how would the people of Washington and Colorado react if Obama told them he was invoking a rule from the United Nations to contravene their democratic will?