President Obama couldn't have been clearer about his take on the so-called war on drugs. In 2004, he called decades of get-tough law enforcement "an utter failure." So it doesn't come as much of a surprise that the new attorney general, Eric Holder, hinted this month that the new administration will take a radically new approach to one drug issue in particular—medical marijuana. "What [President Obama] said during the campaign is now American policy," Holder told a news conference this week.
Despite Obama's well-known views, federal Drug Enforcement Administration agents raided a few pot dispensaries in California two days after his inauguration, despite a state law permitting limited use and sale of medical marijuana. The raid came before Holder's confirmation, and it seems that no one in the new administration told the DEA to stop raiding some of the state's storefront dispensaries. The DEA has hit a few dozen every year since they began appearing in 2003.
This time, the agency was continuing on autopilot under Michele Leonhart, a holdover from the Bush years who remains in charge of DEA until a successor is picked. The White House moved quickly to quiet the nervous uproar from the outraged left. "Federal resources should not be used to circumvent state laws," says Nick Shapiro, an Obama spokesman. Holder's latest remarks appear to signal that the raids will end.
The approach to states' rights in this case, however, is a notable departure from the one used to desegregate schools, close military bases, prosecute civil rights abuses, and link a drinking age to federal highway funds. "Frankly, it's extremely rare for the federal government to allow the states to say that something is legal when the federal law says the opposite," says Paul Rothstein, a law professor at Georgetown University.
Not enforcing federal law in this instance is perhaps just a more politically palatable way of acknowledging how the political landscape of marijuana has changed in the past few years, says Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, which pushes for more lenient drug laws.
Legal experts say whether Obama continues the DEA raids against the dispensaries—which now seems highly unlikely—is beside the point. A dozen states now have laws similar to California's, although often less permissive, and surveys show that the public generally supports some limited relaxation of drug laws for medical marijuana. States with swollen, costly prison populations are rethinking their sentencing policies for all kinds of nonviolent drug offenders. The New York State Legislature is considering revamping the most famous of these codes, the Rockefeller laws, which would be the first such move by the state in a generation.
Meanwhile, advocates of revamping the nation's drug laws encourage Obama to take a page from Franklin Roosevelt, who spent his first few days in office fixing the crippled banking industry before overturning Prohibition. They wave economic studies, arguing that ending marijuana prohibition would create billions in tax revenue and allow cops to focus on more serious offenses. Repealing the 18th Amendment sent millions of dollars into government coffers by 1934 when breweries turned on the taps. "We're not there yet, but ending these punitive DEA raids is a very encouraging step," says Piper.
But with a vice president who helped create the position of White House drug czar, Obama seems unlikely to take radical steps. Throughout the campaign, he stated clearly that he was not in favor of legalizing marijuana. Yet incremental moves can be powerful.
And while the new DEA head hasn't been chosen, Gil Kerlikowske, Seattle's police chief, will reportedly be Obama's drug czar. If his record is any indication, the war on drugs may be due for a change in tactics. Since he took over in Seattle in 2000, misdemeanor marijuana possession arrests there have fallen by half.