Ex-DEA leaders press US to nullify states’ pot laws

CHICAGO — Eight former US drug chiefs warned the federal government Tuesday that time is running out to nullify Colorado and Washington’s new laws legalizing recreational marijuana use, and a United Nations agency also urged challenges to the measures it said violate international treaties.

The former Drug Enforcement Administration chiefs criticized the Obama administration for moving too slowly to file a lawsuit that would force the states to rescind the legislation. Marijuana is illegal under federal law.

‘‘My fear is that the Justice Department will do what they are doing now: do nothing and say nothing,’’ former DEA administrator Peter Bensinger said in an interview Monday. ‘‘If they don’t act now, these laws will be fully implemented in a matter of months.’’


Bensinger, who lives in the Chicago area, said that if the federal government doesn’t immediately sue the states it’ll risk creating ‘‘a domino effect’’ in which other states legalize marijuana, too.

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The statement from the DEA chiefs came the same day the International Narcotics Control Board, a UN agency, made its appeal in an annual drug report, calling on federal officials to act to ‘‘ensure full compliance with the international drug control treaties on its entire territory.’’

But Brian Vicente, coauthor of the Colorado marijuana legalization law, said a handful of North American countries have expressed support for legalization.

A lawyer who led Washington’s legalization campaign said the focus should be on reconciling the Colorado and Washington votes with federal law and treaty obligations.

‘‘Ultimately, we do need to see these laws and treaties change,’’ Alison Holcomb said Tuesday. ‘‘We’re not going to get resolution overnight.’’


US Attorney General Eric Holder told a meeting of state attorneys general last week that he is still reviewing the laws but that his review is winding down. Asked Monday for a comment on the criticism from the former DEA administrators, Holder spokeswoman Allison Price would only say, ‘‘The Department of Justice is in the process of reviewing those initiatives.’’

The department’s review has been underway since shortly after last fall’s elections. It could sue to block the states from issuing licenses to marijuana growers, processors, and retail stores, on the grounds that doing so conflicts with federal drug law. Alternatively, Holder could decide not to mount a court challenge.

The ex-DEA heads issued their statements through the Florida-based Save Our Society from Drugs. One of its spokesmen is based in Chicago.

The former DEA administrators are Bensinger, John Bartels, Robert Bonner, Thomas Constantine, Asa Hutchinson, John Lawn, Donnie Marshall, and Francis Mullen. They served for both Republican and Democratic administrations.

Holder is scheduled to appear Wednesday before a Senate judiciary committee hearing. The former DEA chiefs want senators to question Holder on the legalization issue.