It has been nearly seven weeks since voters in Colorado and Washington made history, enacting at the ballot box unprecedented measures legalizing the adult possession on cannabis. Yet during this time, federal officials have largely remained silent.
One week ago, US Attorney General Eric Holder cryptically told Bloomberg News that the administration will formally announce its intentions “relatively soon,” but added no further details. Most recently, on Friday, President Obama told ABC News’ Barbara Walters: “It would not make sense for us to see a top priority as going after recreational users in states that have determined that it’s legal. … We’ve got bigger fish to fry.” Of course, federal officials do not target minor marijuana offenders now — so the President’s statement provides little clarity as to what actions the Administration may take going forward as Colorado and Washington begin implementing broader regulatory reforms, including measures to license proprietors to commercially produce and sell cannabis to adults.
Today, in Alternet.org, I speculate as to what actions the Administration may take — and what actions they may not take — in the coming weeks as state lawmakers work toward the full implementation of Colorado and Washington’s newly enacted marijuana laws. An excerpt from this commentary appears below.
Will Obama Go After Legal Pot in Washington and Colorado?
With public opinion firmly behind the will of the voters, is it realistic to think that the Obama Justice Department will take action to try and nullify Colorado and Washington’s legalization laws? It’s possible, but it may not be as likely as some think.
For starters, states are not mandated under the US Controlled Substances Act to criminalize marijuana or to arrest and prosecute adult cannabis consumers and the federal government cannot compel prosecutors in Colorado or Washington to do so. The Justice Department and the US Drug Enforcement Administration could, theoretically, choose to selectively prosecute those individuals in Colorado and Washington who possess or grow quantities of plant that are compliant with state law. But such a scenario is hardly plausible. The federal government lacks the manpower and the public support – and therefore the political will – to engage in such behavior and this reality is unlikely to change any time soon. As acknowledged by former congressman and ex-DEA director Asa Hutchinson at a recent CATO Institute forum on the subject, the federal government never has prosecuted people for possessing an ounce of marijuana and it is not about to start doing so now.
By contrast, the Obama administration may attempt to actively prohibit states from allowing for the above-ground, licensed production and sale of cannabis by authorized proprietors. Justice Department officials could theoretically do so by either bringing a legal challenge against the states, by threatening local officials, or by proposing to withhold federal funding. But none of these actions are assured. Here’s why.
To date, the Obama administration has done little to interfere with the state-approved production and licensed distribution of medical marijuana in those states that explicitly license and regulate this activity — specifically in Arizona, Colorado, Maine, New Jersey, and New Mexico. (In recent days, some of the first state-approved dispensaries opened for business in Arizona and New Jersey. In coming months, licensed dispensaries are also anticipated to open their doors to the public in Vermont as well as the District of Columbia. **AUTHOR’S NOTE: By contrast, the Justice Department has taken actions to aggressively close operations in California, Oregon, Montana, and Washington — though none of these states explicitly license dispensaries.**) In Colorado – where the state has licensed several hundreds of cannabis dispensaries and oversees “seed to sale” regulations governing the plant’s production and distribution – federal officials have yet to either file suit or threaten any of the state regulators who oversee the program. In response to a lawsuit filed in 2011 by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who sought to invalidate the state’s 2010 medical cannabis law, lawyers for the federal government affirmed that the administration had never engaged in such strong-arm tactics and did not intend to.
The federal judge in the case agreed. She rejected Gov. Brewer’s legal arguments that the operation of state-approved medical marijuana dispensaries was preempted by federal law or put state employees at risk for federal prosecution, determining “[T]he Complaint does not detail any history of prosecution of state employees for participation in state medical marijuana licensing schemes [and] fails to establish that Plaintiffs are subject to a genuine threat of imminent prosecution and consequently, the Complaint does not meet the constitutional requirements for ripeness.”
A Maricopa County (AZ) Superior Court ruling from earlier this month further affirms that states possess the legal authority to regulate the legal distribution of cannabis, at least in some specific instances, without running afoul of federal anti-drug laws. In the case before the Court, White Mountain Health Center, Inc. v. Maricopa County, Judge Michael Gordon determined that the federal Controlled Substances Act did not preempt Arizona’s efforts to authorize “the local cultivation, sale, and use, of medical marijuana.” Writing for the Court, Judge Gordon declared that nothing in Arizona’s law circumvents federal law since Justice Department officials could still continue to locally enforce the Controlled Substances Act. In fact, Judge Gordon suggested that the new law “affirmatively provides a roadmap for federal enforcement of the CSA, if they so wished to” since the statute requires patients and proprietors to register their activities with the state. He concluded: “The Court rejects … arguments that the [law] violates public policy simply because marijuana use and possession violate federal law. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have passed legislation permitting the use of marijuana in whole or in part. The Court will not rule that Arizona, having sided with the ever-growing minority of States, and having limited it to medical use, has violated public policy.”
Some legal experts, including law professor Robert Mikos of Vanderbilt University Law School, suggest an additional legal theory as to why Colorado and Washington’s proposed regulatory schemes may not be subject to federal preemption. Speaking at a recent CATO Institute sponsored forum, Mikos suggested that the newly enacted state legalization laws do not violate the spirit or the intent of the Controlled Substances Act because the federal law exists for the expressed purpose of limiting the consumption of certain substances by the public, particularly young people. One can argue that the proposed statewide regulatory schemes in Colorado and Washington – which impose age restrictions for buyers and limit sellers to those authorized by the state – are intended to serve a similar purpose. Further, the proposed state programs, “do not stop federal authorities from sanctioning registrants.” Notably, Superior Court Judge Gordon specifically highlighted these arguments in his decision to uphold Arizona’s law and to reject claims that it positively conflicted with federal law.
“No one can argue that the federal government’s ability to enforce the CSA is impaired to the slightest degree [by Arizona’s medical marijuana law],” he opined. “Instead of frustrating the CSA’s purpose, it is sensible to argue that the [law] furthers the CSA’s objectives in combating drug abuse and the illegitimate trafficking of controlled substances.”
You can read the full text of my commentary here.