LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Nine former heads of the Drug Enforcement Administration urged Attorney General Eric Holder on Friday to take a stand against possible legalization of recreational marijuana in three western states, saying silence would convey acceptance.
The nine former officials, illustrating a likely clash between the states and the federal government if marijuana use was allowed for fun, said in a letter dated Friday that legalization would pose a direct conflict with federal law.
"To continue to remain silent conveys to the American public and the global community a tacit acceptance of these dangerous initiatives," said a copy of the letter obtained by Reuters.
Voters in Colorado, Washington state and Oregon are set to decide in the November polls whether to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes and to regulate and tax its sale. They would be the first states to make such a move.
The letter from the former DEA heads is similar to one they sent Holder in 2010 urging him to oppose a recreational pot legalization ballot measure in California. That ultimately failed with 53.5 percent of voters rejecting it.
A spokeswoman for Holder said she was not aware of Friday's letter.
Holder came out strongly against the California measure in a letter to the former administrators before the vote, warning that top U.S. officials would enforce federal laws against pot in California despite any state-level legalization.
Kevin Sabet, a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama's administration on marijuana issues, said he would not be surprised if Holder gave the same response as he had to the California ballot.
"Essentially, a state vote in favor of legalization is a moot point since federal laws would be, in (Holder's) own words (from 2010), 'vigorously enforced,'" Sabet said. "I can't imagine a scenario where the Feds would sit back and do nothing."
Obama administration officials have until now said little about the new ballot measures, although the federal government has cracked down on medical cannabis dispensaries in several states by raiding them and threatening legal action.
The nine signatories to Friday's letter included John Bartels, who ran the DEA from 1973 to 1975, and Karen Tandy, who was in charge from 2003 to 2007, as well as all the heads of the federal law enforcement agency in the intervening years.
Tom Constantine, who was in charge of the DEA from 1994 to 1999 and is one of the signatories to Friday's letter, said the former administrators hoped it would send a message to voters and alter the public debate.
Constantine told Reuters the letter was sent "so that the voters would know in all fairness that no matter what they vote on in Colorado or wherever it is, that federal law still prevails."
Obama administration drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, in response to a 2011 petition to legalize and regulate marijuana, said then that federal officials were concerned about the drug as it was "associated with addiction, respiratory disease and cognitive impairment."
Legalization advocates contend that the decades-old drug war in the United States has failed and compare laws against pot to the unsuccessful prohibition of alcohol from 1920 to 1933.
They say society would be better served if marijuana could be taxed and regulated. While no state currently allows recreational use of the drug, 17 states and the District of Columbia permit its use as medicine.
Reporting By Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and David Brunnstrom