How should the federal government deal with state laws that legalize marijuana use?
Dec. 10, 2012
By Jeremy Quattlebaum, Student Voices staff writer
On Nov. 7, the voters in Washington and Colorado did something no other state has done. They voted to legalize marijuana for recreational use by anyone over 21. Both ballot initiatives decriminalized possession of up to one ounce of marijuana by adults.
Washington’s state law took effect last week. This week, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper declared marijuana use legal as part of the state's constitution. Both states prohibit public use of the marijuana, and regulations for commercial sales will be approved in the coming months. However, a 1970 federal law called the Controlled Substances Act classifies marijuana as a dangerous and addictive drug, the same as heroin and cocaine. Anyone caught distributing or using marijuana by federal officials will face prosecution.The federal law is enforced by the Drug Enforcement Agency with the oversight by the Justice Department, which may prosecute individuals who grow, sell or distribute marijuana.
Colorado and Washington officials have asked the Department of Justice for guidance on the laws that conflict with federal drug law. Thus far, the Justice Department has only issued a warning that possession, growing or use of marijuana is still illegal under federal law. “Regardless of any changes in state law, including the change that will go into effect on Dec. 6 in Washington state, growing, selling or possessing any amount of marijuana remains illegal under federal law,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle said in a statement.
Also, Article VI of the U.S. Constitution contains the supremacy clause, which makes federal laws the “supreme law of the land” and forces states to follow the U.S. Constitution and all federal laws. If a state law conflicts with a federal law, then the federal law must be followed.
So the states of Washington and Colorado will have voter-endorsed laws that stand in direct opposition to federal law. Both states plan to tax marijuana that is sold legally for personal use and distribute it using systems similar to liquor-control boards.
President Obama said in an interview that prosecuting marijuana users in states that have legalized the drug won't be a top priority for his administration. "We've got bigger fish to fry," Obama told ABC News' Barbara Walters in an interview that aired Friday. He did not say whether the Justice Department would go after growers and suppliers in those states. The Obama administration will have to decide whether to sue the states to block laws that allow the recreational use of marijuana or to let those states continue without federal intervention.
During the election, Obama remained silent on the ballot initiatives. Nine former DEA administrators and John Walters, national drug czar under President George W. Bush, had urged Obama and the Justice Department to come out against them.
Some elected officials, law enforcement agents and judges want the administration to take a softer approach to the issue, asking the president to allow the states to proceed and to allow them to develop the marijuana industry free from DEA interference.
“What we’re all hoping for, what we’re essentially lobbying for, is for the federal government to view these two states as laboratories, as incubators of new ideas and better ideas for dealing with the country’s challenge of regulating marijuana,” said Norm Stamper, former Seattle police chief.
Rep. Diana Degette (D., Colo.) introduced legislation that would exempt states that have voter-approved marijuana legalization laws from the federal Controlled Substance Act’s provisions on marijuana.
Also showing support for legalization without federal intervention is Rep. Mike Coffman (R., Colo.), who said in a Denver Post interview: “I strongly oppose the legalization of marijuana, but I also have an obligation to respect the will of the voters given the passage of this initiative, so I feel obligated to support this legislation.”
What do you think?
How should the federal government deal with Washington and Colorado’s legalization of marijuana? Should the Justice Department fight the laws in court or let the states do what they want? Should DEA agents still enforce the federal laws in those states? Should the federal government review and possibly revise the Controlled Substance Act to soften its prohibition of marijuana? Join the discussion and let us know what you think!
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