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.