LOS ANGELES — 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.
The Los Angeles County sheriff, Lee Baca, who has been one of the leading opponents of the measure, quickly embraced the Justice Department’s stance. He said that the initiative was unconstitutional and vowed to continue enforcing marijuana laws, no matter what voters do in November.
Supporters of the initiative have portrayed support for it as another example in an anti-incumbent year of voters rejecting authority.
“Bring on the establishment,” said Chris Lehane, a senior consultant to the campaign pushing for passage of the initiative. “This campaign, and the energy driving it, is predicated on the common understanding that the establishment’s prohibition approach has been a complete and utter failure, as proven by the point that today it is easier for a kid to get access to pot than it is to buy a beer or a cigarette.”
But Roger Salazar, a political consultant who has been directing the effort to defeat the proposal, said that Mr. Holder’s statement should reinforce deep concerns about the initiative, including the way it was drafted and what he called inflated claims by its backers of what legalization might do.
“This is sort of a shot across the bow from the federal government: They’re saying that, ‘If this thing moves the way we think it is, we’re going to come after you guys,’ ” he said. “That gives California voters one more reason to take a deep breath.”
California’s becoming the first state to legalize marijuana for recreational use would provide a real-life test of theories that proponents of legalization have long pressed: That it would provide a new stream of revenues for government, cut down on drug-related violence and end a modern-day prohibition that effectively turns many citizens into lawbreakers.
As it is, no matter what voters or Mr. Holder do, marijuana use in California these days appears, for all practical purposes, all but legal.
Mr. Schwarzenegger signed legislation last month that made possession of an ounce of marijuana an infraction — it had previously been a misdemeanor — punishable by a $100 fine. Medical marijuana dispensaries are common in many parts of the state, and getting a prescription is hardly challenging. Baby boomers who had not smoked marijuana since college now speak openly at dinner parties of their “medical” experimentation with the drug. The smell of marijuana is hardly unusual at outdoor concerts at places like the Hollywood Bowl.
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