Colo., Wash. Voters Make Bold Drug Policy Decisions, but Can the Federal Government Support Progress?

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.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper has suggested he will reach out to the Department of Justice about how it plans to handle the legalization measures. The Associated Press noted that the governor has revealed much less enthusiasm for the legalization initiative, saying, “Federal law still says marijuana is an illegal drug, so don’t break out the Cheetos or Goldfish too quickly.”

Kamin told “60 Minutes” that at some point something has to give. “We can’t have a multi-million dollar industry built on criminal conduct.” And he was talking about the medical marijuana industry. An industry built upon limited legalization is likely to be just as profitable if not more so. Gov. Hickenlooper should drop lame asides about the munchies and work to ensure that the legalization measure should be allowed to proceed unimpeded by the federal government.

There may be little he can do. Ultimately the federal courts are likely to weigh in at least on the medicinal use of marijuana. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit is considering a case challenging the DEA’s refusal to reclassify marijuana so it could be used legally for medical reasons. 

The limited legalization measures, however, will still need the leadership of people like Holcomb, if they are to thrive.

[image via Hendrike]