WASHINGTON — A senior U.S. drug enforcement official urged Congress and others Tuesday not to abandon scientific concerns over marijuana in favor of public opinion to legalize it, even as the Obama administration takes a hands-off approach in states where voters have made legal its sale and use.
The deputy administrator for the Drug Enforcement Administration, Thomas Harrigan, testified Tuesday before a House oversight panel that easing laws governing marijuana threatens U.S. institutions.
"We should not abandon science and fact in favor of public opinion," Harrigan said. He echoed previous testimony from James Capra, DEA's chief of operations, who told a Senate panel in January that "going down the path to legalization in this country is reckless and irresponsible."
The subcommittee chairman, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., said the country is "in a state of conflict and chaos right now" over U.S. marijuana policy.
In an election year that could tip the balance of power in Congress, some Republicans have accused the White House of cherry-picking which federal laws to enforce. The administration has said it continues to pursue dangerous criminals, but Obama himself last month in an interview declared marijuana no more dangerous than alcohol and contrasted it with "harder drugs" including cocaine and methamphetamine.
Federal law is unambiguous: Marijuana is among the most dangerous drugs, it has no medicinal value and it's illegal in the United States. It's a stance supported generally by the president's Office of National Drug Control Policy.
But the Justice Department has made clear it won't interfere with businesses in states where marijuana's sale or use has been made legal so long as everyone adheres to state law and the industry is taxed and regulated. The Treasury and Justice departments last month announced formal guidance for banks, though the financial industry has suggested that banks will remain wary of opening accounts for marijuana businesses.
Harrigan, the deputy DEA administrator, stopped short Tuesday of criticizing the administration's enforcement policies. He said the Justice Department memo issued last year by Deputy Attorney General James Coles has had little impact on his agency's operations targeting large-scale drug trafficking organizations. He said law enforcement remains concerned about international drug organizations exploiting state drug laws that are more lax than the federal government.
The U.S. Attorney in Colorado, John Walsh, said his office has never targeted casual drug users for federal prosecutions and the Cole memo has had no impact on that.
Harrigan also told the panel that DEA's foreign counterparts have questioned why the U.S. appears to be easing its overall oversight of marijuana laws.
Hours before Tuesday's congressional hearing, the United Nations' drug watchdog agency said it "deeply regrets" moves by Colorado and Washington state to allow the sale and use of marijuana. The agency, the International Narcotics Control Board, said such legalization posed a threat to the international fight against drug abuse.
Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medical use. To date, only Colorado and Washington have allowed the sale and use of marijuana for recreational use. Several other states, including Oregon and Alaska, are expected to vote on legalizing recreational marijuana within the next year.
Colorado's recreational pot market became legal in January. Officials in Washington are expected to issue the first marijuana business license Wednesday.