LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Attorney General Eric Holder says federal authorities will continue to prosecute individuals for possession of marijuana in California even if voters there approve a ballot measure legalizing recreational use of the drug.
The Obama administration "strongly opposes" Proposition 19, Holder wrote in a toughly worded letter to former heads of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration who had written to him expressing "grave concern" about the measure.
Passage of Prop 19 "will greatly complicate federal drug enforcement efforts to the detriment of our citizens," Holder wrote in the October 13 letter obtained by Reuters on Friday.
"Accordingly, we will vigorously enforce the (Controlled Substances Act) against those individuals and organizations that possess, manufacture or distribute marijuana for recreational use, even if such activities are permitted under state law," he said.
The tone and substance of the letter seemed at odds with a policy shift announced by the administration a year ago in its approach to medical marijuana, which California became the first U.S. state to decriminalize in 1996.
Reversing the position taken by the Justice Department under President George W. Bush, the Obama administration said last October that federal attorneys would no longer prosecute patients who use pot, or dispensaries that distribute it, for medical reasons in states where it has been legalized.
In his letter to nine former DEA administrators, Holder said Proposition 19 language barring "state and local law enforcement from seizing marijuana that is in compliance with state law" would impede efforts to "target drug traffickers who frequently distribute marijuana alongside cocaine and other controlled substances."
The Justice Department is considering "all available legal and policy options" should the measure win enactment, he added. The issue could very well end up moot. A Reuters/Ipos poll on October 5 showed California voters leaning against the measure, 53 percent to 43 percent.
If passed, California would become the first state to legalize simple possession of an ounce or less of marijuana for anyone 21 or older. It would also be lawful to grow limited amounts of cannabis in one's own home for personal use.
While pot sales would not be legalized outright, cities and counties could pass their own laws permitting commercial distribution subject to local regulations and taxes.
Stephen Gutwillig, California director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which backs Proposition 19, called Holder's comments political posturing, adding that 95 percent of all U.S. marijuana arrests are made by state and local authorities.
"The federal government may criminalize marijuana, but it can't force states to do so, and it can't require states to enforce federal law," he said in a statement.
Editing by Todd Eastham