The Department of Justice says it intends to prosecute marijuana laws in California aggressively even if state voters approve an initiative on the Nov. 2 ballot to legalize the drug.
The announcement by Eric H. Holder Jr., the attorney general, was the latest reminder of how much of the establishment has lined up against the popular initiative: dozens of editorial boards, candidates for office, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and other public officials.
Still, despite this opposition — or perhaps, to some extent, because of it — the measure, Proposition 19, appears to have at least a decent chance of winning, so far drawing considerable support in polls from a coalition of Democrats, independents, younger voters and men as Election Day nears. Should that happen, it could cement a cultural shift in California, where medical marijuana has been legal since 1996 and where the drug has been celebrated in popular culture at least since the 1960s.
But it could also plunge the nation’s most populous state into a murky and unsettling conflict with the federal government that opponents of the proposition said should make California voters wary of supporting it.
Washington has generally looked the other way as a growing medical marijuana industry has prospered here and in 14 other states and the District of Columbia, but Mr. Holder’s position — revealed in a letter this week to nine former chiefs of the Drug Enforcement Administration that was made public on Friday — made explicit that legalizing marijuana for recreational use would bring a whole new level of scrutiny from Washington.
Mr. Holder did not fully spell out the reasons for the decision, but he did allude to the reluctance of the federal government to enforce drug laws differently in different states. “If passed, this legislation will greatly complicate federal drug enforcement efforts to the detriment of our citizens,” he wrote.