Nine former directors of the Drug Enforcement Administration, who represent 34 years of tenure in the federal effort to stop drug use, asked the White House yesterday to publicly oppose initiatives to legalize marijuana in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington State. "To continue to remain silent conveys to the American public and the global community a tacit acceptance of these dangerous initiatives," says their letter to Attorney General Eric Holder.

(I've uploaded the letter here.)

But John McKay, the former US Attorney for the Western District of Washington, says the danger is in perpetuating a system that empowers drug cartels.

"Washington State citizens want a regulated system that will better protect public safety and public health and one that does not enrich violent drug trafficking organizations," says McKay, a sponsor of Initiative 502 on Washington State's fall ballot. The initiative to legalize marijuana possession, cultivation, and sales has been "carefully drafted to give us a policy that can actually work," he says.

For their part, the retired DEA officers speculate that it won't work: "Since these initiatives would 'tax and regulate' marijuana, there is a clear and direct conflict with federal law."

Both this letter and message is part of a tested political strategy. It echoes a 2010 letter opposing a legalization Prop 19 in California. In that case, the Obama Administration and former drug czars beat the drum that Prop 19 would be voided by federal law, and the measure failed by about five points. But it's plainly misleading: The proliferation of more than a dozen medical marijuana laws demonstrate that the fed's reach in drug enforcement is limited. And, uh, if the law is moot, then what are they so worried about?

This time, their letter concerns I-502 in Washington, Amendment 64 in Colorado, and Measure 80 in Oregon. Speaking as a co-sponsor of Washington's measure, Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes responds: "Initiative 502 provides a one-year rule-making process, open to the public, that will allow federal officials to observe and provide input on the writing of regulations. Commenting now on a system that has yet to be developed would be premature and unnecessary."

Should the Obama Administration listen to the DEA heads? They essentially claim to have a silver bullet to reduce the harm of drugs, by keeping up drug criminalization. But in their tenure—ratcheting up enforcement and opposing legalization for decades—we saw the most dangerous cartels proliferate, growing richer and more lethal, without the feds making a dent in drug use.