CHICAGO (AP) — Eight former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration chiefs say the federal government needs to act now or it might lose the chance to nullify laws by the first two states to legalize recreational marijuana use.
Colorado and Washington last year became the first states to legalize recreational use of the drug, putting federal authorities in a quandary over how to respond. Marijuana is illegal under federal law.
The former drug chiefs planned to issue joint statements Tuesday saying the Obama administration has reacted too slowly and should immediately sue to force the states to rescind the legislation. The Associated Press received an advance copy of the statement Monday.
President Barack Obama, who has acknowledged smoking marijuana when he was younger, has indicated that targeting recreational marijuana users in states that have legalized the drug was not top priority and that authorities have "bigger fish to fry."
The former drug chiefs disagree. The federal government must immediately sue the states or risk creating "a domino effect" in which other states follow suit, said one of them, Peter Bensinger.
"My fear is that the Justice Department will do what they are doing now: do nothing and say nothing," Bensinger said. He said the supremacy of federal law over state law when it comes to drug laws isn't in doubt.
Advocates of legalization have welcomed Colorado and Washington's new laws, arguing that criminalizing drugs creates serious social problems. The former DEA heads say they disagree.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told a meeting of top lawyers from each state last week that he is still reviewing the laws. Asked for a comment on the criticism from the former DEA administrators, Holder spokeswoman Allison Price on Monday repeated that stance.
The Justice Department could sue to block the states from issuing licenses to marijuana growers, processors and retail stores, on the grounds that doing so conflicts with federal drug law.
The former DEA administrators are Bensinger, John Bartels, Robert Bonner, Thomas Constantine, Asa Hutchinson, John Lawn, Donnie Marshall and Francis Mullen. They served for both Republican and Democratic administrations.
Holder is scheduled to appear Wednesday before a U.S. Senate judiciary committee hearing, and the former DEA chiefs want senators to question Holder on the legalization issue.
Associated Press writer Michael Tarm contributed.