Colorado and Washington are blazing the trail, the first states to legalize recreational pot. But one thing remains the same on this new frontier — the muddled, often contradictory, stand on marijuana from the Obama administration.
The zigs and zags in federal policy are making it more difficult for those states to make legalization work, and also have contributed mightily to California's continuing medical marijuana mess.
The lack of consistency reflects America's ambivalence about a drug that many have used and a majority want to legalize, but that many others see as harmful and that federal law bans. Still, the administration could do better at speaking with one voice.
Last week, the four U.S. senators from Colorado and Washington released a letter complaining that federal agencies "have taken different approaches that seem to be at odds with each other."
Specifically, in February the administration advised federal prosecutors not to go after banks that allowed pot stores to open accounts and accept credit card payments. But in May, the Bureau of Reclamation said it would not allow federal water to be used to irrigate marijuana crops because the drug is banned under the Controlled Substances Act.
More broadly, the Justice Department said last year that it would allow the two states to license and tax recreational pot, as long as they policed themselves properly. But after a New York Times editorial last week called for ending the federal ban on marijuana and letting states decide — the White House repeated that it opposes national legalization.
President Barack Obama, who smoked weed as a youth, says that he views marijuana as a bad habit — like smoking. "I don't think it is more dangerous than alcohol," he told The New Yorker in a January interview.
If he truly believes that, he should have done more to take marijuana off the government's Schedule 1 list — drugs with high potential for abuse and without medical benefits. You can argue the health risks of smoking pot, but you can't say it's like shooting heroin or doing LSD, two other drugs on the list. This step would allow more research into marijuana's medical uses and would lessen the conflict between federal law and statutes in states that permit medical pot.
In California, legislators and local policymakers have been unable to agree on clear, common-sense rules statewide.
That is a failure of leadership here, but the mixed messages from the White House certainly haven't helped, as officials in Colorado and Washington state are finding out once again.