Obama, Barbara Walters, and Marijuana Users

In an interview with Barbara Walters, President Obama was finally asked about the dramatic legal changes underway in Colorado and Washington–the legalization of marijuana for adults under state law.  The President said that the federal government has “higher priorities” than arresting marijuana users.   At first glance, that may seem like a good answer for those supportive of drug policy reform, but it is not.

Here’s why: Arresting marijuana users has never been a high priority of federal law enforcement.  There are about 800,000 marijuana arrests in the U.S. every year.  The feds are responsible for about 1% of those.  The feds rely on state and local police to conduct domestic drug investigations–especially users with small amounts.  The feds want to focus their resources on the big international cartels operating outside the country.  Of course, the DEA also gets involved with the larger smuggling operations inside the U.S.  In California, where marijuana is quasi-legal for users (in a de facto sense) federal prosecutors focus on the supply side–raiding, harassing, arresting.  The feds bypass  juries by using civil asset forfeiture laws against persons opening dispensaries.

Against that background, listen again to Obama: My administration has higher priorities than going after marijuana users.  Hmm.  That’s just another way of saying “nothing has changed as far as I’m concerned.”    I expect Attorney General Eric Holder to announce a legal challenge to the Colorado and Washington initiatives sometime soon.  And federal raids will begin soon also.

Cato hosted an event this week on some of the issues related to such a federal legal challenge.  Speakers included, former DEA chief, Asa Huthinson and Robert Mikos, Vanderbilt law professor and author of a new Cato study about the interplay between federal and state law with respect to marijuana.