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September 1, 2013

Assembling reactions of those most critical of AG Holder's announcement on federal pot policy

In these comments to a post about the recent announcement by Attorney General Eric Holder concerning federal marijuana policy, former federal prosecutor Bill Otis asserted that "what the AG is actually saying is that nothing is changing" and that the announcement was really no big deal.  But, as evidenced by some very negative reactions by some drug war supporters, not everyone shares Bill's perspective. 

This Huffington Post piece, for example, reports that police groups "that include sheriffs, narcotics officers and big-city police chiefs slammed Attorney General Eric Holder in a joint letter Friday [available here], expressing 'extreme disappointment' at his announcement that the Department of Justice would allow Colorado and Washington to implement state laws that legalized recreational marijuana for adults." Here is more via the Huff Post report:

"It is unacceptable that the Department of Justice did not consult our organizations -- whose members will be directly impacted -- for meaningful input ahead of this important decision," the letter reads. "Our organizations were given notice just thirty minutes before the official announcement was made public and were not given the adequate forum ahead of time to express our concerns with the Department’s conclusion on this matter. Simply 'checking the box' by alerting law enforcement officials right before a decision is announced is not enough and certainly does not show an understanding of the value the Federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement partnerships bring to the Department of Justice and the public safety discussion."

The missive was signed by the Major County Sheriffs’ Association, the National Sheriffs’ Association, the Association of State Criminal Investigative Agencies, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Narcotic Officers Associations’ Coalition, the Major Cities Chiefs Police Association and the Police Executive Research Forum. Law enforcement, the police groups said, "becomes infinitely harder for our front-line men and women given the Department’s position."

In addition, this round-up from StoptheDrugWar.org reports on some other notable negative reactions from "opponents of marijuana law reform":

"Decades from now, the Obama administration will be remembered for undoing years of progress in reducing youth drug use in America," Dr. Paul Chabot of the Coalition for a Drug Free California said in a statement. "This president will be remembered for many failures, but none as large as this one, which will lead to massive youth drug use, destruction of community values, increased addiction and crime rates."...

"We can look forward to more drugged driving accidents, more school drop-outs, and poorer health outcomes as a new Big Marijuana industry targeting kids and minorities emerges to fuel the flames," warned former US Rep. Patrick Kennedy in a statement issued by Project SAM (Smart About Marijuana), a neo-prohibitionist organization that couches its policy aims amid public health concerns.

"This is disappointing, but it is only the first chapter in the long story about marijuana legalization in the US. In many ways, this will quicken the realization among people that more marijuana is never good for any community," said Project SAM cofounder and director Kevin Sabet....

The taxpayer-funded Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA) also weighed in with disappointment, doom, and gloom. "The Department of Justice announced that it will not sue to block the implementation of laws in Colorado and Washington that legalize marijuana, despite the fact that these laws are in conflict with federal law," said CADCA head Gen. Arthur Dean in a statement. "CADCA and its more than 5,000 community coalitions across the country have been anticipating a response from the administration that would reaffirm the federal law and slow down this freight train. Instead, this decision sends a message to our citizens, youth, communities, states, and the international community at large that the enforcement of federal law related to marijuana is not a priority."

"The fact remains that smoked marijuana is not medicine, it has damaging effects on the developing adolescent brain, and can be addictive, as evidenced by the fact that 1 in 6 youth who use it will become addicted," Dean claimed, adding that the country is in "a growing crisis" as marijuana law reforms take hold. "The nation looks to our Justice Department to uphold and enforce federal laws. CADCA is disappointed in the Justice Department's decision to abdicate its legal right in this instance. We remain gravely concerned that we as a nation are turning a blind eye to the serious public health and public safety threats associated with widespread marijuana use."

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform.

September 1, 2013 at 11:45 AM | Permalink


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I appreciate Doug's implicit endorsement of my moderation on this issue by his noting that organizations with an axe to grind -- some on the right, others on the left -- have their own reasons for finding that the AG's statement was an outrage. AN OUTRAGE, I tell you!!!

I am a member of no such organization. I have no constituents to whip up into a fund-raising frenzy.

I teach law at Georgetown. Occasionally I give advice to people here and there, mostly inside the Beltway, who call me up. I don't make a dime from what I write (although I do make some from public speaking and appearances).

What I said was that the AG's stance is not much of a departure from pre-existing DOJ and DEA policy on pot. I'll say so again now.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 1, 2013 3:26:26 PM

I should probably clarify the comment above by noting that I am in sympathy with those who criticize Holder from the right. But there is a difference between what they emphasize (what Holder's stance SIGNALS) and what it actually DOES (that being very little).

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 1, 2013 3:32:47 PM

Still waiting on Michele Leonhart to throw a fit.

Posted by: The Death Penalty Sucks. | Sep 1, 2013 6:45:28 PM


Why should she throw a fit? As I noted, and you don't contradict, Holder's advice to the governors makes next to no change in federal drug operations as they have existed for quite some time. The DEA is an operational component, not a policy making one.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 1, 2013 7:27:48 PM

Coming from a conservative background (and still leaning right, but mostly due to fiscal policies) I can see how the AG's speech would upset the right. Conservatives (not just Republicans) probably see this speech as an overarching policy that the federal government has given up the war on drugs, to all extents, and essentially writes a permission slip for states to follow suit. However, this is actually a win for conservatives because it gives the power back to the states. The AG essentially said that they have no reason to usurp the power of the states to amend and enforce their own penal codes.

Posted by: Matt Raby | Sep 2, 2013 10:08:35 AM

Matt Raby --

There is something to what you say. I would only remind people to remember that softening the war on pot (to the extent this IS an operational softening, which I doubt), is still only softening, and it's still only pot.

Traffickers is big amounts have as much to worry about as they did before last week, and there is no effect whatever on all the other drugs.

For PR purposes, the left/libertarian faction constantly wants to portray themselves as on the speeding bandwagon to The Great Triumph. But it's just PR. Libertarians know that they can't even stick their nose out of the cave on the harder drugs because they have zilch public support. They also know that pot was de facto legal for almost all practical purposes before now, and will be a smidgen more de facto legal afterwards.

I appreciate the left/libertarian PR strategy, and in their position, I would probably be doing the same thing. But I spent a long time at DOJ and the DEA under both parties, and those who genuinely think the Druggie Revolution is just over the horizon are going to be disappointed.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 2, 2013 10:27:25 AM

Mr. Otis, given your background at both federal agencies that are at the heart of this discussion, do you conclude that we should effectively end the war on drugs at the misdemeanor level? If so, aren't we also granting amnesty for dealers (without whom, users would be forced to grown their own pot)? I'm not sure that I have enough knowledge to form a real opinion. While it would be ideal to stop arresting, trying, and sentencing recreational users, wouldn't we also have to let the traffickers go? Would it be fair to allow people to drink alcohol but condemn the distilleries?

Posted by: Matt Raby | Sep 2, 2013 11:28:12 AM

I agree with the N.Y. Times editorial on Sept. 2, 2013 that Holder's announcement amounts to a green light to the states to legalize use of pot if they so choose.

Posted by: Michael R. Levine | Sep 2, 2013 11:35:38 AM

I don't think there is broad support for the legalization of harder drugs though there is likely an openness, at least the ability to experiment, to use various approaches, that changes the status quo. The focus on marijuana also suggests no "druggie revolution" is widely desired, if that means legalization per a libertarian paradise. Still, if some locality downplays the prosecution of let's say raves, and doesn't want the feds to stop them from being able to do this (including only focusing on usage in clubs, perhaps even not criminalizing small possession), I think there might be fairly broad support of them having the power to do so w/o the feds stepping in. That is, I think there might be a some real opposition to the possible reach of Gonzalez v. Raich.

Posted by: Joe | Sep 2, 2013 12:07:16 PM

Matt Raby --

"Mr. Otis, given your background at both federal agencies that are at the heart of this discussion, do you conclude that we should effectively end the war on drugs at the misdemeanor level?"

No. I'm against the USE of drugs, not opposition to their use. Drugs range from unhealthy to lethal, to the user and others. The less we have of them, the better off we are.

"While it would be ideal to stop arresting, trying, and sentencing recreational users...,"

I disagree, but it makes no difference. For practical purposes, at the federal level, we long ago stopped going after mere recreational users.

"...wouldn't we also have to let the traffickers go? Would it be fair to allow people to drink alcohol but condemn the distilleries?"

As long as pot remains illegal under the CSA, we don't "have to" let ANYONE go. Holder is doing what all managers of big organizations do: Prioritizing. In a political world -- and Holder is a political officer -- prioritizing is almost never dictated by pure logic, but by balancing the competing demands of your constituencies.

The public is in equipoise on legalizing small amounts of pot for recreational use, but is far more clearly opposed to for-profit trafficking of commercial amounts. "The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience." -- Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 2, 2013 4:36:53 PM


"Would it be fair to allow people to drink alcohol but condemn the distillaries?"

Funny you mention that--because that's precisely what happened during prohibition. It was illegal to "manufacture, sell, or transport" alcohol, but it was not illegal to consume it.

Or put more colorfully by one man at the time:

"When I sell liquor, they call it bootlegging. When my patrons serve it on silver trays on Lake Shore Drive, they call it hospitality."

--Al Capone

I do, however, see some difference between traffickers and consumers. Consumers can grow marijuana plants in their backyard, which ultimately affects only them. There is no collateral damage simply by using. Traffickers, by contrast, are part of an enterprise that carries a lot of collateral baggage--murder, bribery, corruption, etc.

I think this difference is enough to target traffickers even if the use of what they sell is legal. The reality is, if someone is being picked up for possession with intent to distribute, they're carrying quite a bit of pot, and they didn't just grow it in their basement.

Posted by: Res ipsa | Sep 3, 2013 9:58:34 AM

If Mr. Otis and the last commenter are still checking this thread, thanks for your input and responses!

Posted by: Matt Raby | Sep 5, 2013 8:33:53 AM

Matt Raby --

Happy to oblige.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 6, 2013 6:50:05 AM

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