It's good news, even excellent news, but my optimism is a little more cautious. Holder's announcement might be the beginning of the end of federal drug prohibition, which would be good for us, our neighbors, and other living things, but that will be a long game. And for every step we take forward, we might very well take a few steps back.
After all, AG Holder and deputy AG James Cole (here is a pdf of his memorandum) issued guidance, not marching orders. Any stubborn US attorney, who will probably still be on the job once Holder has left, is free to enforce federal law (which has not changed). Any future attorney general could reverse this "guidance" as abruptly as Holder announced it.
Furthermore, those eight conditions Holder and Cole specified (Washington marijuana shouldn't show up in other states, minors should have less access to marijuana than they do now, etc., all of which ) have given the feds broad latitude to intervene whenever it becomes politically expedient. They're letting the experiment run, for now, but this ain't the 21st Amendment. An enormous and intricate legal apparatus will have to be dismantled and rebuilt, brick by brick, before we see real change in the drug war. (And it's up to us to make it look like this guidance was a good idea. Let's not fuck it up.)
So optimism, yes. But cautious optimism.
Another reason to be optimistic, for progressives anyway, is the problem Obama (via Holder) has handed to the Republican class of 2016. Drug policy expert Sanho Tree, who's been a helpful source for several previous Stranger stories about the drug war, lays it out:
Holder has essentially placed a ticking time bomb on the GOP’s doorstep that could detonate during the 2016 presidential elections. Because federal law remains unchanged, the next administration can reverse his guidance on a whim and resume the war on pot.
All Republican candidates will be asked during the primaries where they stand on this key issue and any answer they can give will infuriate at least one of the GOP’s powerful factions. A nascent civil war is brewing between the social conservative and the libertarian wings of the party. Neither faction is known for compromising so this question can become a powerfully divisive wedge issue that could accelerate and exacerbate the GOP’s civil war. Whichever side wins, it will send the nominee into the 2016 election bleeding from the fight.
That civil war has been brewing for a long time (I heard several young Republicans at the national convention in 2008, for example, quietly saying they were waiting for their predecessors to retire or die off so they could get to work dismantling the party's drug and gay-marriage policies) and it's boiling over in Ohio right now:
But as Republicans look to take back the White House in 2016, the Buckeye State does not appear to be cooperating. Instead, Republicans in Ohio have slipped into an all out civil war, with a Tea Party faction threatening to break away from the GOP machinery...
“Disappointment would be an appropriate word about where the Tea Party is today,” said Seth Morgan, a former state lawmaker who now works for Americans for Prosperity-Ohio, a Koch brothers–backed group that has helped bankroll numerous Tea Party challenges. “People didn’t get involved to elect individual candidates. They wanted to save the country, and they still do, but there is a high level of frustration here.”
As Neil Clark, an Ohio Republican lobbyist, put it: “I guess for some people in Ohio, unless you are a card-carrying Nazi you can’t be a Republican.”
Whatever happens with this little experiment in a states'-rights approach to drug legalization, it will at least fan the flames of this fire in the heart of the Republican party.