Despite changes in state legislature and public opinion, drug czar Gil Kerlikowske said the federal government’s stance on marijuana prohibition will not change.
Kerlikowske made the remarks during a conference on Wednesday in which he said the White House opposes both legalization of drugs and the war on drugs.
“The Justice Department’s responsibility to enforce the Controlled Substances Act remains unchanged," Kerlikowske said. “Neither a state nor the executive branch can nullify a statute passed by Congress.”
Kerlikowske added that it’s possible the government may make enforcing marijuana laws a low priority, but he said that is an issue that will be decided by the Department of Justice.
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The news is sure to disappoint marijuana activists, many of whom helped reelect President Obama in hopes that the administration would reform the government’s approach to marijuana prohibition. Marijuana is currently a Schedule One drug in the Controlled Substances Act, classified alongside harder drugs like heroin, LSD, and MDMA.
Although the federal government will not change marijuana legislation at this time, Kerlikowske reiterated that the government is working to reform its approach to drug prohibition as a whole. Kerlikowske said modern drug policy should be focused on education and treatment rather than incarceration.
“This is what drug policy reform looks like: it looks like a doctor, it looks like a nurse," Kerlikowske said. “Emphasizing prevention over incarceration, that's what drug policy reform looks like today." Kerlikowske also credits new drug courts that issue treatment-oriented sentences instead of incarceration with reducing the nation’s prison populations in 2010 and 2011. Drug crimes still contribute to an enormous percentage of the nation’s prison population, however. In federal prisons, 94,600 inmates – 48% of the total population – are incarcerated because of drug-related offenses.
Kerlikowske’s statement on the federal government’s stance on marijuana prohibition comes at a time when many in the nation are shifting their opinions on the issue. Colorado and Washington legalized cannabis in last November’s elections, and a new Pew poll reveals that a majority of Americans now support marijuana legalization—a first in American history.
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Although the federal government is not changing its stance on marijuana at this time, it may be forced to soon. In addition to Colorado and Washington, 22 states have either decriminalized cannabis or made it legal for medical use -- illustrating a growing dissonance between the opinions of Americans and the law.