The Senate Judiciary Committee tried Tuesday to find common ground between those who say states should control their own marijuana use laws and those who think federal law should trump.
The Justice Department, which last month said it will not go after average pot users in states where they are legally allowed to possess it — either because of decriminalization or medical marijuana laws — has said it doesn’t consider its new guidance to be a free-for-all.
“A jurisdiction’s regulatory scheme must be tough in practice, not just on paper,” Deputy Attorney General James Cole said in his prepared remarks. “It must include strong enforcement efforts, backed by adequate funding.
More than 20 states and Washington D.C. have legalized marijuana for medical purposes. Of those, 16 have decriminalized marijuana, meaning those who break the law will be receive civil fines rather than criminal penalties. Only Colorado and Washington have made recreational use of the drug legal.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said that finding areas of broad agreement is the first step to figure out what role the federal government should play in states like Washington and Colorado.
For example, both sides agree that the states must have a process in place to prevent the sale of marijuana to minors, driving while high, violence surrounding sales of the drug, and marijuana use on federal property.
“These new laws are just the latest examples of the growing tension between federal and state marijuana laws, and they underscore the persistent uncertainty about how such conflicts will be resolved,” he said in his opening statement. “Although much of the focus of today’s hearing will be on what is happening in Colorado and Washington … the questions and issues we discuss today have implications for the rest of the country.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa and ranking member of the committee, said that the U.S. is obligated to prohibit the use of what science tells us is a “dangerous, addictive drug” under international law.
“Prosecutorial discretion is one thing, but giving the green light to an entire industry based on breaking federal law is another,” he said.
He noted how states that want to seal their borders to immigrants can expect pushback from the government, but how in the case of this “dangerous, addictive drug,” the Obama administration has adopted a wait-and-see approach.
“We already have a pretty good idea of how it works out and the answer is badly,” Mr. Grassley said, noting the increased number of deaths from driving while high in Colorado since marijuana has been legalized.