SAN FRANCISCO — Attorney General Eric Holder is warning that the federal government will not look the other way, as it has with medical marijuana, if voters next month make California the first state to legalize pot.
Marijuana is illegal under federal law, which drug agents will “vigorously enforce” against anyone carrying, growing or selling it, Holder said.
The comments in a letter to ex-federal drug enforcement chiefs were the attorney general’s most direct statement yet against Proposition 19 and set up another showdown with California over marijuana if the measure passes.
With Prop 19 leading in the polls, the letter also raised questions about the extent to which federal drug agents would go into communities across the state to catch small-time users and dealers, or whether they even had the resources to do it.
Medical marijuana users and experts were skeptical, saying there was little the federal government could do to slow the march to legalization.
“This will be the new industry,” said Chris Nelson, 24, who smokes pot to ease recurring back pain and was lined up outside a San Francisco dispensary. “It’s taxable new income. So many tourists will flock here like they go to Napa. This will become the new Amsterdam.”
If the ballot measure passes, the state would regulate recreational pot use. Adults could possess up to one ounce of the drug and grow small gardens on private property. Local governments would decide whether to allow and tax sales.
The Justice Department remains committed to enforcing the Controlled Substances Act in all states, Holder said.
“We will vigorously enforce the CSA against those individuals and organizations that possess, manufacture or distribute marijuana for recreational use, even if such activities are permitted under state law,” he wrote.