DENVER - U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder faces growing pressure to respond to voter-approved measures in Colorado and Washington state that legalized recreational marijuana last fall.
Holder is scheduled to testify before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.
Former federal drug enforcement officials recently joined the list of people urging the Department of Justice to nullify the votes legalizing pot in both states.
"I think the voters have been misled," said Peter Bensinger, the former administrator of the Drug Enforcement Agency. Bensinger worked in the agency for several years, including under President Ronald Reagan.
Bensinger and seven other former Drug Enforcement Administration chiefs fired off a letter Tuesday to Judiciary Committee members, urging them to tell Holder to enforce federal laws against marijuana.
The letter came on the same day a United Nations-based drug agency urged the U.S. government to challenge those laws, saying they violate international drug treaties.
"This is something that the federal government can't just say, 'Well, let's try an experiment,'" Bensinger said. "They should go into court and say Washington (state) and Colorado what you've done is against the law.'"
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 under way 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.
Some are hoping Holder shows restraint.
"It's time the federal government reviews its policy regarding marijuana," said Art Way with the Colorado Drug Policy Alliance.
Way said the November pot votes and fact that 18 states now allow some form of medical marijuana are proof the country has hit a tipping point.
"I think the ultimate goal is to deal with the potential harms of marijuana from a public education standpoint," said Way. "From a standpoint that brings up prevention and treatment and not a standpoint of blanket prohibition."
No timeline of when Holder could make a decision has been offered but there's growing indication it could come within the next few weeks.