The following editorial appeared in Monday's Washington Post:
Small-time marijuana use will soon be legal in Colorado and Washington state. Sort of.
This month voters in those states approved ballot measures permitting possession of up to an ounce of pot. But the federal government has not changed its policy, which labels the drug an illegal substance. Members of Congress introduced legislation Nov. 16 that would allow state marijuana rules to pre-empt federal ones. But that, in effect, would resemble federal legalization, and it's unlikely to pass anytime soon.
So the states' leaders are asking for guidance from President Obama's Justice Department, which, NPR's Carrie Johnson reports, has a few options. It could enhance its own anti-marijuana enforcement in the states. It could sue to halt the laws' application.
Or the Justice Department could keep its hands off, perhaps continuing the approach the feds have largely taken for some time focusing scarce resources on major violators, such as big growers that might serve multistate markets, cultivators using public lands or dispensaries near schools. The last option is clearly best.
There is reason for caution about ditching federal pot restrictions. Marijuana can be harmful, and the Drug Enforcement Administration reports that potency levels are higher than ever. The possibly major effects on public health of more driving under the influence of marijuana is a particular concern. If the federal government removed its restrictions, other states would find it easier to follow Colorado and Washington's path. Dismantling current federal law, meanwhile, could have a range of effects on the U.S. relationship with Mexico that lawmakers should take time to consider fully, as drug cartels' involvement in U.S. medical marijuana markets indicates.
But it's unrealistic and unwise to expect federal officials to pick up the slack left by state law-enforcement officers who used to enforce marijuana prohibitions against pot users and small-time growers. Unrealistic, because it would require lots more resources. Unwise, because filling prisons with users, each given a criminal stain on his or her record, has long been irrational. For the latter reason, we favor decriminalizing possession of small amounts of pot, assessing civil fines instead of locking people up. Also, for that reason and others, the Justice Department should hold its fire on a lawsuit challenging Colorado and Washington's decision to behave more leniently. And state officials involved in good-faith efforts to regulate marijuana production and distribution according to state laws should be explicitly excused from federal targeting.
It's not yet clear how a quasi-legal pot industry might operate in Colorado and Washington or what its public-health effects will be. It could be that these states are harbingers of a slow, national reassessment of marijuana policy. Or their experiment could serve as warning for the other 48 states.
For now, the federal government does not need to stage an aggressive intervention, one way or the other. It can wait, watch and enforce the most worrisome violations as they occur.