By Alex Dobuzinskis
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A top Justice Department official has told "60 Minutes" the federal government is ready to combat any "dangers" of state-sanctioned recreational pot, amid criticism of the Obama administration for its relative silence on legalization drives in three states.
Voters in Colorado, Washington state and Oregon are set to vote on November 6 on whether to legalize and tax marijuana sales, raising the possibility of a showdown with the federal government, which views pot as an illegal narcotic.
Deputy Attorney General James Cole, in comments to "60 Minutes" posted on Saturday to the website of CBS affiliate KCNC-TV in Denver, said his office's stance on pot would be "the same as it's always been" if voters approved legalization.
"We're going to take a look at whether or not there are dangers to the community from the sale of marijuana and we're going to go after those dangers," Cole told "60 Minutes" in an outtake from a report on Colorado's medical marijuana industry due to air on Sunday, according to the CBS affiliate.
Cole's statement is an indication the federal government, which has raided medical pot dispensaries in several of the 17 states that allow cannabis as medicine, could also take aim at state-sanctioned recreational marijuana.
It also represents a break with the Obama administration's relative silence about the pot referendums, which has led to uncertainty about whether federal officials would stop states from taxing and regulating sales of pot in special stores to those 21 and older, as proposed under each of the three state initiatives before voters.
Representatives for the Justice Department did not return calls or emails seeking comment on Cole's remarks.
A top legalization backer, however, dismissed them as "innocuous," unlike the stance Attorney General Eric Holder took in 2010 just weeks before a failed California referendum to legalize pot.
"WAIT AND SEE"
In 2010, Holder issued a toughly worded letter that said his office "strongly" opposed the California proposal and would "vigorously enforce" drug laws against participants in the recreational pot trade, even if state law permitted it.
Holder's statement is credited with helping to convince some California voters to reject the proposal.
"Compared to what they did two years ago in California, to have their federal posture be essentially a wait-and-see approach is encouraging," said Ethan Nadelmann, head of the Drug Policy Alliance, which through affiliates has funded marijuana legalization campaigns.
Polls show the American public is increasingly leaning toward legalizing pot, but no state has taken that step.
Nadelmann said pot legalization is popular with young people and independents, two groups of voters crucial to President Barack Obama's re-election campaign, and that his administration is "being smart in basically not weighing in at this time."
Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in the United States. Pot activists say prohibition fails to prevent its use and enriches criminal cartels, but opponents of legalization say it would endanger health and public safety.
Former heads of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in September sent a letter to Holder urging him to publicly oppose the legalization referendums. On Monday, a former federal official expressed dismay at the Obama administration's silence.
"It's shocking, because all you have to do is say things that this administration's already said," John Walters, who served as "drug czar" to former President George W. Bush, told reporters on a conference call.
Cole's remarks to "60 Minutes" were in response to a question about the possibility of recreational pot being allowed in Colorado, according to the station, which posted a video with the outtake on its website.
"I think it is pretty clear from this video that the Obama administration won't take any legalization measure lying down," Kevin Sabet, a former adviser to Gil Kerlikowske, the Obama administration's drug policy director, said in an email.
(Additional reporting by Keith Coffman; Editing by Paul Simao)