Sam Kamin

  • 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. 

  • November 8, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    As Colorado voters were debating whether to support a ballot measure to legalize small amounts of marijuana, some fretted about fueling drug tourism. But the more obvious difficulty Colorado and Washington State, where a similar legalization measure was approved, face centers on the federal government and its law that sees marijuana as more dangerous than heroine.

    As University of Denver law school Professor Sam Kamin told “60 Minutes” not long before the elections, the federal government has not been easy on the states that have legalized medical marijuana use. The government is employing several tactics to undermine the medical marijuana industry in Colorado – a fairly robust one – despite the challenges. Part of what the federal government does, according to Kamin, is to threaten banks with prosecution under the Controlled Substances Act if they help the medical marijuana industry to expand.

    It seems safe to assume for the moment that the federal government will not look any more favorably on the limited legalization laws in Colorado and Washington than it has on states were medical marijuana has been legalized.

    Alison Holcomb an attorney and leader of the campaign for Washington’s Initiative 502, sounded an optimistic note upon its passage, saying the state had “looked at 70 years of marijuana prohibition and said its time for a new approach,” the Associated Press reported. The Seattle Weekly in a Sept. profile of her work, lauded her for bringing together a “jaw-dropping list of sponsors – including travel guru Rick Steves, City Attorney Pete Holmes and former U.S. Attorney and Bush appointee John McKay – and keeps winning more and more endorsements as time goes on.”

    Washington’s initiative creates a system of state-regulated marijuana growers and allows adults to buy up to an ounce. Colorado’s Amendment 64 will allow those over 21 to buy an ounce of marijuana and permit people to grow a limited amount of marijuana.