Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy: “Legislative Options Exist” to Resolve Potential Federal/State Conflict Over Marijuana Legalization in Colorado and Washington

Press Release December 12, 2012
Media Contact

Contact: Tony Newman 646-335-5384 or Ethan Nadelmann 646-335-2240</p>

In a letter to U.S. Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske, Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) asked how the federal government intends to deal with states like Colorado and Washington that recently voted to regulate and tax marijuana like alcohol. In the letter, Senator Leahy also suggested that federal legislation could be introduced to legalize up to an ounce of marijuana, at least in states that have legalized marijuana.

The letter, sent last week but reported on today in the Huffington Post, notes that "[o]ne option would be to amend the Federal Controlled Substances Act to allow possession of up to one ounce of marijuana, at least in jurisdictions where it is legal under state law."

There are several bipartisan bills in the U.S. House that would reform federal marijuana laws, but so far none in the Senate. A few weeks ago Republican Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) said he is considering introducing legislation to reform federal marijuana laws.

Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, offered this statement:

“Senator Leahy’s letter to drug czar Kerlikowske asking important questions about the Obama administration’s policy regarding the Washington and Colorado marijuana legalization laws is an important development – for all sorts of reasons.

It is striking, first and foremost, because members of the U.S. Senate have been remarkably quiet on issues of marijuana policy in recent years.  The 36 Senators representing the 18 states where marijuana has been legalized for medical purposes have taken little initiative to defend patients and others involved in medical marijuana from federal attacks.  Senator Leahy’s intervention, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is thus all the more welcome insofar as it suggests that Senate leadership is now willing to address the issue with public hearings and letters to the White House.

The Senator’s suggestion that the Federal Controlled Substances Act be amended  to allow possession of up to one ounce of marijuana, at least in jurisdictions where it is now legal under state law, represents a modest but significant proposal – modest because federal (as opposed to local) law enforcement authorities rarely arrest and prosecute Americans for possessing such small amounts, but significant in that it proposes new federal legislation to accommodate legalization innovations by the states.

The most important part of the Senator’s letter is when he states that “legislative options exist to resolve the differences between federal and state law in this area and end the uncertainty that residents of Colorado and Washington now face” and asks about assurances from the administration that state officials will not be prosecuted for implementing the new laws.

The ballot initiatives in Washington and Colorado made history not so much because they legalized possession of small amounts of marijuana but because they mandated that the state governments regulate and tax what had previously been illicit markets.

Ending marijuana prohibition not just in the states but also nationally is going to require the sort of leadership that Senator Leahy has just demonstrated.  Now is the time for his colleagues to stand up as well in defense of responsible state regulation of marijuana for both medical and recreational consumers.”

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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