Foe-Turned-Friend of Legalization, Attorney General Eric Holder Resigns

David Downs, San Francisco Chronicle

First a foe, then a crucial ally in efforts to tax and regulate adult use of cannabis, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. will resign, the Justice Department told reporters today.

Holder was the first African-American to serve as Attorney General, and will be remembered among cannabis reformers as first an enemy, then an ally in the efforts to wind down the 70 year-old war on Americans who use pot.

In 2010, Holder destroyed crucial support for California legalization initiative Prop 19, just weeks before voters headed to the polls. Holder promised federal repercussions if California charted a new path away from the war on weed, and said the federal government would not respect state laws.

But in 2012, he resisted pressure from former Drug Czars to repeat the show in Washington and Colorado. And in Aug. 2013, almost a year after two other states, Colorado and Washington, both legalized marijuana for adults 21 and over, Holder essentially blinked and released the second Cole Memo — outlining how efforts to regulate cannabis could serve federal public health goals and instructing federal prosecutors to take a hands-off approach to licit marijuana-related activity.

That gave Colorado and Washington the breathing room to license and regulate their nascent, legal cannabis industries. Both states have reaped a tax windfall and saved millions of dollars in law enforcement costs without the bedlam promised by police lobbyists.

Dale Clare, former Prop 19 spokesperson, and chairwoman of the 2016-oriented Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform said she was, “slightly surprised he’s retiring now”. Many expected it expected after Pres. Obama’s re-election or during the Fast & Furious scandal.

“Why now?” asked Clare, executive chancellor for Oaksterdam University.

“Holder shows a fascinating arc towards cannabis policy reform, from thunderous hellfire and damnation threats to California in 2010 for even considering adult legalization with Prop 19, then total silence in 2012, to sentencing guideline reform and law enforcement priorities that we can all applaud; the arc of his evolution may eventually be coming full circle,” she said.

However, Clare said she doesn’t forgive him for using his federal position and resources to unfairly influence an election.

“Neither can the families of the lives unnecessarily ruined for an extra six years.”

In 2013, Americans for Safe Access claimed President Obama spent almost $300 million on medical marijuana enforcement, despite pledges not use Justice Department funds that way. ASA claimed that since 2009, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) conducted at least 270 paramilitary-style medical marijuana raids.

This year, Holder oversaw the first drop in the federal prison population since 1980.

Here’s Holder on sentencing reform and marijuana’s classification as schedule 1. (Ten-minute mark)

“I think it’s certainly a question that we need to ask ourselves – whether or not marijuana is as serious a drug as is heroin,” Holder said. “The question of whether or not they should be in the same category is something that I think we need to ask ourselves, and use science as the basis for making that determination.”

“His recent focus on the need for sentencing reform and programs to reduce recidivism have brought to the fore an important conversation we as a nation must have,” stated Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee.

Anthony Papa of the Drug Policy Alliance, who served 12 years under New York’s Rockefeller Drug Laws, stated, “I applaud Attorney General Eric Holder for working to help improve sentencing laws that have broken our criminal justice system and led to the mass incarceration of many low-level nonviolent drug offenders.”

Holder has said he planned to leave by the end of 2014 and will remain in office until a successor is nominated and confirmed.

Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, stated, “Holder will go down in history as the Attorney General who began unwinding the war on drugs and steering our country away from mass incarceration. … President Obama should replace him with someone who is going to carry on that legacy of reform.”