When it comes to pot, the federal government is both impotent and omnipotent. What the feds cannot do is force either Colorado or Washington to impose criminal sanctions on pot possession. "They cannot say to states: You must keep arresting or throwing people in jail for simple use," says Sabet, the former White House adviser. "And they cannot compel the states to impose penalties on use." Individual pot smokers in Colorado and Washington will technically be in violation of federal law, but as a practical matter the DEA only has the resources to pursue high-level traffickers.
Where the federal government has great power to act is in shutting down state taxation and regulation of marijuana. Privately, both drug reformers and drug warriors believe the Obama administration is likely to take Colorado and Washington to court to keep them out of the pot business. "I would put money on it," says Sabet.
Unfortunately for drug reformers, the administration appears to have an open-and-shut case: Federal law trumps state law when the two contradict. What's more, the Supreme Court has spoken on marijuana law: In the 2005 case Gonzales v. Raich contesting medical marijuana in California, the court ruled that the federal government can regulate even tiny quantities of pot – including those grown and sold purely within state borders – because the drug is ultimately connected to interstate commerce. If the courts side with the administration, a judge could issue an immediate injunction blocking Washington and Colorado from regulating or taxing the growing and selling of pot – actions that would be considered trafficking under the Controlled Substances Act. The feds could also threaten to prosecute state employees tasked with implementing the new regulations – a hardball tactic the administration deployed last year to shut down state regulation of medical marijuana in Washington and Rhode Island.
Such draconian measures would do nothing to curb marijuana use – particularly in Colorado, where the new law empowers citizens to grow up to six plants and share up to an ounce of their weed with other adults. "Thanks to homegrow," says Vicente, who coauthored the law, "we will still have legal adult access" – no matter how hard the feds crack down on commercial growers and retailers. But denying states the ability to regulate marijuana would eliminate the tax revenues that reformers promised voters. "If they want to act cynically," says Nadelmann, "the federal gambit would be to block regulation to make this as messy as possible" – in the hopes that the public would sour on pervasive, unregulated weed.
Ironically, if Obama succeeds in gutting the new state laws, he will essentially be serving the interests of foreign drug cartels. A study by the nonpartisan think tank Instituto Mexicano Para la Competitividad found that legalization in Colorado and Washington would deal a major blow to the cartels, depriving them of nearly a quarter of their annual drug revenues – unless the federal government decides to launch a "vigorous intervention." If that happens, pot profits would continue to flow to the cartels instead of to hard-hit state budgets. "Something's wrong," says Stamper, the former Seattle police chief, "when the lawbreakers and the law enforcers are on the same side."
In the end, the best defense against federal intervention may be other states standing up against prohibition. While pro-pot sentiment is strongest in the West, recent polls show that legalization is now beginning to enjoy majority support nationwide. "We're beyond the tipping point," says Stamper. Spurred by the victories in Colorado and Washington, legislators are already moving to legalize pot in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, Maine and Iowa. "It's time for the Justice Department to recognize the sovereignty of the states," Gov. Jerry Brown of California declared. "We don't need some federal gendarme to come and tell us what to do."
Obama, the former constitutional-law professor, has relied on the expansive powers of the chief executive when it serves him politically – providing amnesty to a generation of Dream Act immigrants, or refusing to defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court. A one-time pothead who gave a shout-out to his dealer in his high school yearbook, Obama could single-handedly end the insanity of marijuana being treated like heroin under the Controlled Substances Act with nothing more than an executive order.
What the president needs to act boldly, reform advocates believe, is for the rising tide of public opinion to swamp the outdated bureaucracy of the War on Drugs. "The citizens have become more savvy about the drug war," says Franklin, the former narcotics cop. "They know this is not just a failed policy – they understand it's also a very destructive policy." With an eye on his legacy, Franklin says, Obama should treat pot prohibition like the costly misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan: "This is another war for the president to end."
This story is from the December 20th, 2012 - January 3rd, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.
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