WASHINGTON — Two prominent Republican senators blasted the Obama administration for its decision not to prosecute adults who smoke pot in Colorado and the President’s recent remarks on marijuana that appeared in a magazine article last week.
“It will be regretted. It’s just a matter of when,” Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama said of the administration’s policy. He said President Obama should have urged Coloradans not to vote for the pot-legalization initiative on the ballot in 2012 and told Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske to make the case against the legalization of pot.
Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah criticized President Obama for equating the dangers of marijuana and alcohol in an interview that appeared in The New Yorker magazine.
“I don’t think it’s more dangerous than alcohol,” Obama told editor David Remnick.
“That’s the stupidest comment in history. It’s a mistake,” Hatch said in an interview from the Capitol to his Senate office. “They are both drugs, but marijuana is way worse because it’s a gateway drug. Anybody who gets hooked on heroin or cocaine started with marijuana.”
Sessions and Hatch, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, spoke a day after U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder testified in front of the panel.
In a hearing that touched on many issues affecting the Justice Department, Holder defended the Obama administration’s decision not to challenge Colorado’s new pot law despite its conflict with a 1970 federal anti-drug law. Holder said the administration will continue to enforce the provisions of the Nixon-era Controlled Substances Act that prohibit minors from using or selling marijuana.
“I think the use of any drug has the potential to be harmful, and included in that would be alcohol,” Holder said in response to a question from Sessions.
Amendment 64 allows adults to possess up to one ounce of marijuana, grow as many as six marijuana plants, and permits the regulated sale of pot to those over 21. Fifty-five percent of voters approved the initiative.
Whether the federal government should enforce anti-pot laws in states such as Colorado and Washington that have legalized marijuana is not a strict partisan issue.
Republican Tom Tancredo, a former U.S. Representative who is a gubernatorial candidate in Colorado, opposes federal intervention. “I don’t believe the Constitution gives the federal government the power to tell states what their drug policies should be,” he wrote in an email Thursday.
Yet Dianne Feinstein of California, another Democratic member of the Senate Judiciary, reiterated her opposition to making pot legal. “I’m not for pot legalization. I think it can have some medicinal benefits, but it’s also much more potent than it used to be. The tetrahydrocannibanol factors, or whatever you call them, are higher,” she told TCO Thursday.
Amid the war of words, one Republican on the Judiciary Committee preferred to stay neutral in the battle. “I’m glad I’m from Arizona,” Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican, said with a nervous chuckle Thursday.
Senators are divided not only on on federal enforcement of the anti-provisions of the Controlled Substances Act, but also the future of the law.
Democrat Charles Schumer of New York, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he supports the status quo which the Obama administration reified last summer.
“I’m not for changing the law, but let’s let the states be laboratories of democracy on this issue and see how it works out,” Schumer said in an interview at the Capitol Thursday.
By contrast, Hatch said the federal government “ought to enforce the laws on the books or get rid of them.” A Republican Attorney General would enforce the law and prosecute those who break it, he added.
Separately, Colorado Rep. Jared Polis (D-Boulder) has invited Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada to Colorado to visit a legal dispensary and growing operation to see how the state’s marijuana regulations are being implemented.
“I am writing to thank you both for your recent comments regarding your shifting positions on the regulation and legalization of marijuana,” Polis said. “It is vital that our nation’s leaders recognize that marijuana’s placement on Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act has cost taxpayers millions of dollars and has classified countless people as criminals simply for using or being in possession of a substance that, as you noted, Mr. President, is less dangerous than alcohol in terms of its individual impact on consumers.”