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ACLU Urges Obama Administration to Back Off Tough Talk on California's Prop. 19

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October 25, 2010

Today, the ACLU sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and Office of National Drug Control Policy Director Gil Kerlikowske urging them to reconsider their approach towards federal drug law enforcement if California’s Proposition 19 passes in this year’s election.

Prop. 19 is an initiative that would allow adults age 21 and over to possess and grow small amounts of their own marijuana for personal use, and would allow cities and counties to regulate and tax commercial sales. Prop. 19 has been widely endorsed by former U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, labor unions, law enforcement officials, faith leaders, and civil rights organizations including the ACLU’s three California affiliates.

But despite this widespread support, earlier this month, Attorney General Eric Holder sent a letter to nine former chiefs of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) telling them the DOJ will “vigorously enforce” federal laws against marijuana in California, even if Prop. 19 passes. Holder’s letter was in response to a letter those same chiefs had sent urging him to challenge Prop. 19 in court (PDF) if it passes. News reports from last week indicated the Obama administration has not ruled this out, despite the fact that the chiefs’ request relies upon a wrongly held belief that it would violate the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Our letter states in part:

Proposition 19 will let Californians decide whether to change the failed policy of using scarce state law enforcement resources to prohibit, under state law, the adult consumption and possession of small amounts of marijuana. The ACLU took heart from Director Kerlikowske’s [previous] acknowledgement that the ‘war on drugs’ has failed. But instead of scaling back the rhetoric associated with that ineffective and out-of-date campaign, it appears the administration would resist California’s modest attempt to begin dismantling one of the defining injustices of our failed drug policies: that the war on drugs has become a war on minorities. African-Americans and Latinos are disproportionately arrested for low-level marijuana possession in California and across the nation even though usage rates are the same as or lower than those of whites.

In fact, an alarming new report released report by the Drug Policy Alliance last week found from 2006 to 2008, police in 25 of California’s major cities arrested blacks at four to 12 times the rate of whites.

Our letter also outlines why we believe a legal challenge to Prop. 19 will fail. For all the gory legal details, read the full letter.)