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The feds say no way

California can pass Prop. 19 and legalize marijuana, but the U.S. government won't go along.

October 20, 2010

If California voters were still under the illusion that Proposition 19 would legalize marijuana, U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. sought to disabuse them of the notion last week. "We will vigorously enforce the [federal Controlled Substances Act] against those individuals and organizations that possess, manufacture or distribute marijuana for recreational use, even if such activities are permitted under state law," Holder wrote in a letter to nine former heads of the Drug Enforcement Administration who had lobbied the Obama administration to forcefully oppose California's overreaching ballot initiative.

Proposition 19 would allow people 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and would authorize cultivation of cannabis plants on up to 25 square feet of land. But only under state law; under federal law, smoking a joint would still be a crime. It isn't news that federal officials oppose Proposition 19 — President Obama himself has said he's against legalizing marijuana — but supporters of the Nov. 2 ballot measure appear to have hoped the administration would be as tolerant toward recreational users as it has been toward medicinal marijuana users. That's not going to happen.

If the proposition is approved, the result would be a legal morass. DEA raids would nab Californians who think they're complying with the law, only to face federal penalties. Fear of such raids would deter legitimate distributors from getting into the business, worsening the gray-market lawlessness that already pervades California's medical marijuana industry. Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca has vowed to continue arresting people who grow marijuana, but such arrests would be certain to result in litigation. Courts also could be clogged with lawsuits over the measure's impact on the workplace if it becomes illegal for employers to conduct drug tests or to discipline workers who get stoned on the job.

We can understand the frustration that led to the drafting of Proposition 19. It is absurd that the federal government lists marijuana as a Schedule I drug, meaning that it has no medical uses and is considered as dangerous as heroin or LSD, when it may have therapeutic benefits and is less addictive and harmful than alcohol or tobacco. Yet, as we've said in our ballot endorsements, Proposition 19 is not the answer. Besides the legal problems, it would create regulatory chaos as each of California's 478 cities and 58 counties comes up with its own rules on growing, possessing, distributing and taxing the drug.

Marijuana users in California already face negligible penalties; last month, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill downgrading possession of less than an ounce from a misdemeanor to an infraction. There's no need for a battle with Washington that the state is unlikely to win.

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