Controlled Substances Act

  • September 3, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Sam Kamin, Director, Constitutional Rights & Remedies Program and Professor, University of Denver Strum College of Law

    The Department of Justice recently announced how it would enforce federal marijuana law in those states seeking to legalize marijuana under their own laws. In a memo to United States Attorneys around the country, Deputy Attorney General James Cole set out the priorities that govern the federal government’s enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act’s (CSA) marijuana prohibition. The government, Cole wrote, was primarily concerned with the distribution of marijuana to minors, the involvement in marijuana trafficking of organized crime, the distribution of more serious drugs along with marijuana, and the transfer of marijuana from states where the drug was legal under state law to those where it was not.  So long as those states seeking to legalize marijuana had robust regulatory regimes in place to address these concerns, businesses acting in conformance with state law would generally not be an appropriate target of federal enforcement, whether criminal or civil.

    The DOJ memo marks a major change in direction for the federal government. As recently as 2010, Attorney General Holder had made clear to the people of California that the federal government would not countenance a state decriminalizing and regulating recreational marijuana manufacture and sale. Furthermore, previous enforcement memoranda from the DOJ had drawn a distinction between legitimate medical use of marijuana on the one hand (which the government stated would not be an enforcement priority) and large-scale commercial production (which remained a valid target for federal prosecution). The 2013 Cole Memo makes clear that the size and for-profit nature of marijuana establishments was but one factor to be considered by United States Attorneys in determining whether to enforce the CSA in states that had sought to legalize marijuana. 

    For state officials in Washington and Colorado – which both passed marijuana legalization initiatives in 2012 – this word from the DOJ was long-overdue good news; with this announcement, the states could complete the final stages of their marijuana regulations and begin licensing businesses to open their doors in early 2014.

    But the memo can do only so much to alleviate the uncertainty and confusion caused by the continuing federal marijuana prohibition. In the first place, the memorandum is a unilateral act of the executive and can always be undone by other unilateral executive actions; when a new presidential administration takes over in January 2017, there is no telling how it will view the federal government’s marijuana enforcement priorities. 

  • April 26, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Despite the rhetoric to move beyond a perpetual “war on drugs” the Obama administration remains mired in the tough-on-drugs mindset and its Justice Department seems befuddled by the states that have legalized small amounts of marijuana for recreational use.

    The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report revealing that the administration’s goals set out in 2010 have largely not been met. The report noted that the Office of National Drug Control Policy and other federal agencies established “seven Strategy goals related to reducing illicit drug use and its consequences by 2015.” GAO continued, “As of March 2013,” its “analysis showed that of the five goals for which primary data on results were available, one shows progress and four show no progress.”

    But, as The Huffington Post’s Matt Sledge reports drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy has just released another drug control plan that builds on the policies the GAO has said are not working. More troubling, Sledge notes that the drug office’s budget “still devotes less than half of it funds to treatment and prevention. The GAO found that prevention and treatment programs are ‘fragmented’ across 15 federal agencies.”

    In an April 24 post on its web site, the Office of National Drug Control Policy bemoans “illicit drug use,” claiming “drug-induced overdose deaths now surpass homicides and car crashes as the leading cause of injury or death in America.” It also declares “we cannot arrest or incarcerate our way out of the drug problem.”

    The language from the administration’s drug control office is softer than rhetoric about the “war on drugs,” which the Nixon administration launched with the enactment of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) several decades ago. But the administration’s drug control office is not embracing drug legalization or even any changes to the CSA, such as removing marijuana from the list of drugs deemed as dangerous as say heroin.

    The muddled message from the Obama administration -- not helped by its Justice Department’s silence on how it will respond to Colorado and Washington, where officials are crafting measures to implement and regulate the recreational use of marijuana -- is preserving tough-on-drugs policies.

  • December 7, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    The Obama administration may be on the verge of irking large swaths of its supporters by employing scarce Justice Department resources to go after users of small amounts of marijuana in Colorado and Washington, where voters, by comfortable margins, voted to legalize limited amounts of possession.

    The New York Times’ Charlie Savage reports that senior officials in the administration “are considering plans for legal action against Colorado and Washington that could undermine voter-approved initiatives to legalize the recreational use of marijuana in those states, according to several people familiar with the deliberations.” Savage goes on to describe some of the possibilities the administration could take – sue the states arguing that federal law trumps state action in this area. (The Controlled Substances Act prohibits sale and possession of marijuana.) The Justice Department wouldn’t talk to Savage about administration plans on the matter, but did highlight a statement issued recently by the U.S. Attorney in Seattle, stating that marijuana remained illegal pursuant to the CSA.

    Andrew Sullivan notes that Pete Guither views the Savage piece as a trial balloon “to see what kinds of reactions there are and what political fallout might come from action … or inaction."

    Sullivan obliges, writing that if administration officials decide “to treat the law-abiding citizens of Colorado and Washington as dangerous felons; if they decide to allocate their precious law enforcement powers to persecuting and arresting people for following a state law that they have themselves just passed by clear majorities; if they decide that opposing a near majority of Americans in continuing to prosecute the drug war on marijuana, even when the core of their own supporters want an end to Prohibition, and when that Prohibition makes no sense … then we will give them hell.”

  • November 15, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Following on the victories for limited legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington, advocates for legalization are gearing up for more state action. Andrew Sullivan in a post, “The Legalization Tipping Point,” notes that lawmakers in Rhode Island, Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont are contemplating legalization legislation.

    Legislators from Rhode Island and Maine during a teleconference today conducted by the Marijuana Policy Project discussed their plans to introduce measures that would decriminalize marijuana and allow the states to tax and regulate it “in a manner similar to alcohol.” The MPP statement about the call said lawmakers in Massachusetts and Vermont were planning on introducing similar legislation.

    In the MPP press announcement, Robert Capecchi, the group’s legislative analyst lauded last week’s victories, noting both ballot initiatives passed with about 55 percent in favor. He also declared, “We are passing the tipping point when it comes to this issue. Unfortunately, lawmakers have traditionally been behind public opinion when it comes to marijuana policy reform. With these thoughtful legislators in at least four states planning on introducing sensible proposals to remove criminal penalties and regulate marijuana in their states, it’s clear that ending marijuana prohibition is gaining momentum.”

    A string of states – 17 – and the District of Columbia already have laws permitting varying uses of marijuana for medicinal purposes. Denver’s medical marijuana industry, even with the efforts by the federal government to impede it, has become robust. But we still do not know how the Department of Justice will respond to the measures approved in Colo. and Wash.

  • November 14, 2012
    Guest Post

    By Sam Kamin, Director, Constitutional Rights & Remedies Program and Professor, Sturm College of Law, University of Denver


    With the passage of marijuana legalization initiatives in Washington and Colorado, the long-simmering cold war between state and federal marijuana policy threatens to break out into open hostilities. While eighteen states plus the District of Columbia now permit marijuana for medical purposes, only Washington and Colorado have taken the bolder step of both repealing entirely their marijuana prohibitions for small amounts of the drug and requiring their state legislatures to begin regulating a retail, recreational marijuana industry by the end of 2013.

    Everything now depends on the response of the federal government. Notwithstanding changing policy in the states, marijuana remains on the DEA’s list of Schedule I narcotics, those drugs whose manufacture and sale are strictly prohibited. Thus, every transaction in every medical marijuana state throughout the country constitutes a federal crime. The Justice Department has grudgingly accepted the medical marijuana industry thus far; while there have been some federal raids on these businesses, they have generally been permitted to operate, notwithstanding their open flouting of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA).

    In 2010, when the state of California considered Proposition 19 which would have legalized marijuana for recreational purposes U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder issued voters in that state a strong warning. He made clear that the federal government would “vigorously enforce” the provisions of the CSA in the state if voters passed the Proposition. After having an early lead in polls, the measure eventually lost.