Lawmaker says pot policy bolsters border drug war

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An Obama administration decision telling federal prosecutors not to target dispensers of medical marijuana in states that have legalized its use has helped finance a violent and expanding drug war along the U.S.-Mexico border, a senior House Republican charged this week.

“Given the violence raging at the border, violence which your administration’s [Drug Enforcement Administration] has said is fueled by marijuana, why is the department refusing to take legal, constitutional and responsible steps to enforce our nation’s drug laws?” Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, asked Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in a letter Monday.

Mr. Smith said federal law still prohibits the possession, manufacture and distribution of marijuana, even though 14 states have enacted laws approving the sale and use of marijuana for medicinal purposes.

“I previously wrote to you expressing my disapproval of the Justice Department’s 2009 guideline directing federal prosecutors not to bring charges against dispensaries operating in compliance with these state laws,” he said, adding that to do so was a “blatant disregard” of congressional mandates, Supreme Court rulings and the “constitutional requirement that the president faithfully execute the laws of the United States.”

He said the DEA has said marijuana sales were significant to the success of the Mexican drug cartels and that they were the top revenue generator for the Mexican drug gangs — “a cash crop that finances corruption and the carnage of violence year after year.”

Medicinal marijuana laws also have caused enforcement problems in some states.

In New Mexico, Albuquerque police had a tip over the weekend about a backyard marijuana-growing operation but discovered the suspect was a patient under the state’s medical cannabis program.

Law enforcement agencies in states with privacy provisions in their medical marijuana laws worry that such situations drain their resources unnecessarily and could end up getting someone hurt. Boulder, Colo., police complained last year about their state’s grower-confidentiality provisions, saying officers spent considerable time investigating operations that turned out to have legal permission to have pot.

Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said the department was reviewing the Smith letter. She said the department is committed to “vigorous enforcement” of the federal drug laws and would continue to focus its enforcement resources on illegal drug traffickers in all states, including those who use “marijuana dispensaries” as a front to conduct illegal drug trafficking.

“The department is focusing its enforcement and investigative activities involving marijuana on serious drug traffickers who violate both federal and state law,” she said, but she added that traffickers who try to hide behind “state ‘medical’ marijuana laws to mask their illegal activities will face federal prosecution.”

In October 2009, the Justice Department announced formal guidelines for federal prosecutors in states that permit medical marijuana. Deputy Attorney General David W. Ogden said in the memo the department was committed to “making efficient and rational use of its limited investigative and prosecutorial resources,” adding that U.S. attorneys have “plenary authority with regard to federal criminal matters” within their districts.

“As a result, federal prosecutors are invested by statute and delegation from the attorney general with the broadest discretion in the exercise of such authority,” he said.

While cracking down on significant illegal drug trafficking remains a “core priority” for the Justice Department, “as a general matter, pursuit of these priorities should not focus federal resources in your states on individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana,” the Ogden memo said.

In his letter, Mr. Smith pointed to the Obama administration’s lawsuit this summer against the state of Arizona over its tough new immigration enforcement statute.

“How do you justify suing Arizona for allegedly pre-empting federal immigration law and yet not seek the same remedy against the states [that] have pre-empted federal drug laws?” he asked.

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