Expect Federal Fast Talking About CO and WA to Start Soon

Not a day has passed since legalization initiatives passed in two states, and ominous words have already been spoken. According to CBS, “[d]rug laws remain unchanged following passage of marijuana ballot initiatives“:

“The department’s enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act remains unchanged. In enacting the Controlled Substances Act, Congress determined that marijuana is a Schedule I controlled substance. We are reviewing the ballot initiatives and have no additional comment at this time.”

I haven’t seen the statement on the DOJ web site yet. Perhaps it’s only been sent to media outlets. Colorado’s governor, meanwhile, hopes to talk to US Attorney General Eric Holder as soon as this week, according to the Denver Post.

Gov. Hickenlooper and CO Atty. General John Suthers both have said they intend to respect the will of the voters. But if the feds tell them that Colorado can’t do this, that would be a convenient answer for these officials who probably don’t want the trouble, especially when a little time has gone by and the spotlight on them over the amendment is a little less intense. So far DOJ’s statements as well as Hickenlooper’s sound accurate to me, to the extent that I’ve studied them. But it’s important to be prepared to communicate a factual understanding of how the law works, in the event that federal or even state officials attempt to obfuscate.

As a CNN legal analyst this morning commented (email or post if you know his name), federal law toward marijuana, and state law in Colorado and Washington (as well as all medical marijuana states) are different. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they “conflict.” Specifically, it doesn’t mean that they have a “positive conflict.” If the state itself were to sell or traffic in marijuana, that would be a “positive conflict” with federal law. But Colorado and Washington have no obligation to enforce federal drug laws. The legal question as far as federal preemption is whether they can issue licenses to marijuana sellers that protect the sellers under state law.

My understanding of the law as well as that of colleagues I’ve spoken with is that this is not a positive conflict, as it does nothing to prevent the feds from making a drug bust if they choose to do so. It may well get tested in court. But it’s worth noting that in 16 years of state medical marijuana laws, no federal prosecutor in the country has ever tried to preempt state medical marijuana laws — they’ve busted dispensaries, but they have not tested the laws themselves in court. The same law is at stake with these legalization initiatives, with the difference being the scope of what they legalize and regulate.

My guess is that DOJ will face greater pressure to try to lawfully preempt one of these laws (as opposed to squashing them by force) than they have felt with state medical marijuana laws, even if they are doubtful of their chances for success. But time will tell. For us, the thing to remember — and to point out whenever it comes up — is that federal law and state law are “different” — they conflict politically, but that doesn’t mean they conflict legally. The feds don’t have a lot of incentive to acknowledge this, and as the statement shows, they can can be factual but still leave out that important point.

– Article originally from Stop the Drug War.

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