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Sen. Leahy: Holder, Justice should help hash out conflict with state pot laws

- The Washington Times - Monday, August 26, 2013

The Senate Judiciary Committee chairman announced Monday that the panel will hold a hearing on marijuana, the latest effort to smoke out the Justice Department's input on the conflict between state and federal pot laws.

The hearing, scheduled for Sept. 10, comes 10 months after Colorado and Washington state voters legalized recreational marijuana in the November 2012 election.

Since then, federal and state lawmakers have repeatedly asked the Justice Department for guidance on how to proceed with the newly passed laws, which run afoul of federal law prohibiting marijuana consumption and sales.

Invited to testify at the hearing are Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and Deputy Attorney General James Cole. Mr. Holder said in a speech before the National Association of Attorneys General that he would issue guidance "soon," adding, "We're in the last stages of that review."

That was Feb. 26. So far, the department has released no advisory clarifying the state-federal conflict.

"It is important, especially at a time of budget constraints, to determine whether it is the best use of federal resources to prosecute the personal or medicinal use of marijuana in states that have made such consumption legal," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and the committee chairman, in a statement.

"I believe that these state laws should be respected. At a minimum, there should be guidance about enforcement from the federal government."

Twenty states and the District of Columbia have passed laws permitting medical-marijuana use. In 2009, the Justice Department issued a memo allowing states leeway in regulating medical marijuana.

Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, expressed frustration with the lack of federal action, saying that lawmakers need to "adopt an evidence-based approach for the 21st century."

"By failing to recognize the decisions of voters and legislators in those states, current federal law is undermining their ability to implement and enforce those laws," Mr. Riffle said in a statement. "Marijuana prohibition's days are numbered, and everyone in Washington knows that. It's time for Congress to stop ignoring the issue and develop a policy that allows states to adopt the most efficient and effective marijuana laws as possible."

At this point, officials in Colorado and Washington state are proceeding as if they have a federal go-ahead. Both states have drawn up regulations for recreational marijuana, despite concerns over conflicts with federal laws that forbid, for example, banks from accepting money from drug operations.

In Colorado, the state Department of Revenue enacted emergency regulations in order to comply with the July 1 deadline under Amendment 64, the legalization initiative approved by a margin of 55 percent to 45 percent.

The first Retail Marijuana Establishment Licenses may be issued Jan. 1. Local councils in more than 20 Colorado cities, including Colorado Springs, have voted to ban retail marijuana businesses within their borders.

The Denver City Council was slated to vote Monday on placing a proposed 3.5 percent retail pot tax on the Nov. 5 ballot. In that same election, voters statewide will decide on the state legislature's 15 percent proposed marijuana excise tax and sales tax capped at 15 percent.

Meanwhile, the Washington State Liquor Control Board is working on finalizing regulations in time for the Dec. 1 deadline set by Initiative 502, the marijuana-legalization measure voters approved by a margin of 56 percent to 44 percent.

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