A group of every former head of the Drug Enforcement Administration is urging Attorney General Eric Holder to oppose a ballot initiative that would make California the first state to legalize recreational marijuana use.
Peter Bensinger, who served in the Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter administrations, said during a news conference Monday that California’s Proposition 19 is a “disaster waiting to happen.” Proposition 19 would permit the possession, sale and distribution of marijuana in the state if California voters endorse the ballot initiative in November.
Bensinger and the eight other former DEA administrators who led the agency since its inception in 1973 penned an Aug. 24 letter to Holder, saying the enactment of Proposition 19 would conflict with federal law. They wrote that that Supremacy Clause of the Constitution prohibits the legalization of marijuana because the drug is illegal under U.S. federal law.
“All of us are gravely concerned about Proposition 19,” Bensinger said Monday at the National Press Club in D.C.
A Justice Department spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Main Justice. Bensinger said he has not received a “direct comment” from the DOJ either. But DOJ opposition to the ballot initiative should be a “no-brainer,” he said.
The DOJ under Holder, however, has turned a mostly blind eye to some uses of the drug.
The Attorney General said last year that the prosecution of seriously ill people who smoke marijuana in states where medicinal use is legal is not a top priority. D.C. and 14 states allow medicinal marijuana use.
Supporters of Proposition 19 have said the legalization of recreational marijuana would help California lower its mounting budget deficit. The state would be able to collect taxes and fees from marijuana sales.
Robert Bonner, a DEA administrator from the George H.W. Bush administration, said the suggestion that Proposition 19 would help the cash-strapped state is a “cruel hoax.”
“In reality, it is highly unlikely that any taxes will be paid, for to do so would admit a criminal violation of federal law and expose the seller to federal prosecution,” Bonner said in a statement. “The proponents of Prop 19 either know that no taxes are going to be raised by the State of California or they are smoking something.”
DOJ spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler issued the following statement:
“The federal government is committed to enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act and the Department of Justice will continue to focus its enforcement resources on significant traffickers of illegal drugs, including marijuana, in all states. It is premature to speculate what steps we would take in the event that California passes its ballot measure.”