The Drug Czar's Lack of Vigor (and Rigor)


"People don't want to see someone jump in from Washington and tell them how to vote," drug czar Gil Kerlikowske said today while jumping in from Washington and telling Californians how to vote on Proposition 19. Kerlikowske, who visited a drug treatment center in Pasadena, told A.P. the Justice Department might take the advice of nine former DEA administrators and sue to overturn the pot legalization initiative if voters are foolish enough to ignore him. "The letter from the former DEA administrators, a number of whom are not only practicing attorneys but former state attorney generals, made it very clear that they felt that pre-emption was certainly applicable in this case," Kerlikowske said.

Not surprisingly, Kerlikowske did not cite any constitutional provision or case law that says California must ban what Congress bans or that states are obligated to punish whatever the federal government punishes. A.P. itself misleadingly frames the issue, saying Prop. 19 "would conflict with federal laws classifying marijuana as an illegal drug." There is not a conflict simply because a state chooses not to replicate the federal criminal code.

Speaking of conflicts, Kerlikowske noted Attorney General Eric Holder's promise to "vigorously enforce" marijuana prohibition in California whether or not Prop. 19 passes:

The attorney general made it clear the federal government will continue to enforce the marijuana laws under the Controlled Substances Act. It's a duty and responsibility of government, it's not something where they can say which laws they want to enforce and which they don't.

Yet Kerlikowske insisted that "vigorously enforc[ing] the CSA against those individuals and organizations that possess, manufacture or distribute marijuana for recreational use," as Holder said he would do, will not require much in the way of law enforcement resources:

Kerlikowske…criticized claims by Proposition 19's supporters that the law would free up time and money law enforcement agencies now spend pursuing marijuana offenses.

"Law enforcement agencies are not spending an inordinate amount of time chasing adults around for small amounts of marijuana," he said. "Here in California, the jail resources, law enforcement resources, court resources are not being overburdened with adults going through the system" for personal pot possession.

For those who believe the government has no business dictating what grownups may put into their bodies, any amount of time spent enforcing marijuana prohibition is "inordinate." But Kerlikowske can't have it both ways. Either pot prohibition is not worth vigorous enforcement, in which case voters have to wonder whether it is justified at all, or it is important enough to merit the resources required to arrest a substantial percentage of those who violate it.

The other day I noted that the feds account for less than 1 percent of marijuana arrests, which suggests they would have a hard time picking up the slack if a state like California opted out of enforcing marijuana prohibition. Here is another relevant fact: All the marijuana arrests (about 858,000 in 2009) amount to maybe 3 percent of people who violate marijuana prohibition every year. (That's according to the federal government's survey data, which probably understate the number of marijuana users.) In other words, the government fails to catch marijuana offenders at least 97 percent of the time, and the feds are getting less than 0.03 percent of them. Is that what Holder calls "vigorous" enforcement?