San Francisco — Attorney General Eric Holder is warning that the federal government will not look the other way, as it has with medical marijuana, if voters next month make California the first state to legalize pot.
Marijuana is illegal under federal law, which drug agents will “vigorously enforce” against anyone carrying, growing or selling it, Holder said.
The comments in a letter to ex-federal drug enforcement chiefs were the attorney general’s most direct statement yet against Proposition 19 and set up another showdown with California over marijuana if the measure passes.
With Prop 19 leading in the polls, the letter also raised questions about the extent to which federal drug agents would go into communities across the state to catch small-time users and dealers, or whether they even had the resources to do it.
Medical marijuana users and experts were skeptical, saying there was little the federal government could do to slow the march to legalization.
“This will be the new industry,” said Chris Nelson, 24, who smokes pot to ease recurring back pain and was lined up outside a San Francisco dispensary. “It’s taxable new income. So many tourists will flock here like they go to Napa. This will become the new Amsterdam.”
If the ballot measure passes, the state would regulate recreational pot use. Adults could possess up to one ounce of the drug and grow small gardens on private property. Local governments would decide whether to allow and tax sales.
The Justice Department remains committed to enforcing the Controlled Substances Act in all states, Holder said.
“We will vigorously enforce the CSA against those individuals and organizations that possess, manufacture or distribute marijuana for recreational use, even if such activities are permitted under state law,” he wrote.
The letter was dated Wednesday and was obtained by The Associated Press.
Holder also said legalizing recreational marijuana would be a “significant impediment” to the government’s joint efforts with state and local law enforcement to target drug traffickers, who often distribute pot alongside cocaine and other drugs.
The attorney general said the ballot measure’s passage would “significantly undermine” efforts to keep California cities and towns safe.
Officials in Los Angeles County, where authorities have aggressively moved to tamp down on an explosion of medical marijuana dispensaries, vowed that they would still assist the federal government in drug investigations.
County Sheriff Lee Baca and District Attorney Steve Cooley said at a news conference that the law would be unenforceable because it is trumped by federal laws that prohibit marijuana cultivation and possession.
“We will continue as we are today regardless of whether it passes or doesn’t pass,” Baca said. His deputies don’t and won’t go after users in their homes, but public use of the drug will be targeted, he said.
Both gubernatorial candidates — Democrat Jerry Brown and Republican Meg Whitman — oppose Prop 19 and declined comment Friday.
The ex-Drug Enforcement Administration chiefs sent a letter to Holder in August calling on the Obama administration to sue California if Prop 19 passes. They said legalizing pot presented the same threat to federal authority as Arizona’s recent immigration law.
In that case, Justice Department lawyers filed a lawsuit to block the enforcement of the law, saying that it infringed on federal powers to regulate immigration and therefore violated the U.S. Constitution. The case is now before a federal appeals court.
Experts say the two situations are not the same.
If Arizona wants to crack down on illegal immigration more strictly than the federal government, the U.S. can act to prevent police in the state from enforcing the law, said Robert Mikos, a Vanderbilt University law professor who studies the conflicts between state and federal marijuana laws.
If California prevents police from enforcing the stricter federal ban on marijuana, the Supreme Court has ruled that the federal government cannot order local law enforcement to act, he said.
It “is a very tough-sounding statement that the attorney general has issued, but it’s more bark than bite,” Mikos said.
“The same factors that limited the federal government’s influence over medical marijuana would probably have an even bigger influence over its impact on recreational marijuana,” Mikos said, citing not enough agents to focus on small-time violators.