Federal laws pose "significant obstacles" to regulation of marijuana in states where it is legal and need to be addressed, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said Tuesday in a first-ever hearing aimed at reconciling rapidly changing state marijuana laws with a federal prohibition on the drug.
"We must have a smarter approach to marijuana policy," Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said. "The absolute criminalization of personal marijuana use has contributed to our nation's soaring prison population and has disproportionately affected people of color."
The hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee follows a Justice Department memo outlining how it will enforce federal marijuana prohibitions in two states, Colorado and Washington, that have legalized its use, and 20 states that allow marijuana for medical use.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said he was concerned state regulations would fail to keep marijuana use in check. Colorado, which had legalized marijuana for medical use before legalizing it for recreational use in November, has done a poor job so far of preventing marijuana exports to other states where marijuana remains illegal, he said.
"Why has the Justice Department decided to trust Colorado?" Grassley said. "Colorado has become a significant exporter of marijuana."
The Justice Department reserved its right to challenge state laws if public health or safety problems emerge or if the states fail to enact strict regulations to control marijuana use and sale, Deputy Attorney General James Cole, author of the memo, told the Senate panel.
The states' regulations must be "tough in practice, not just on paper," Cole said. "It must include strong enforcement efforts, backed by adequate funding."
Colorado adopted its final rules on Monday, said Jack Finlaw, chief legal counsel to Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. He said the 141 pagers of rules cover application and licensing for retail stores; cultivation and manufacturing; testing requirements; inventory tracking; testing and product safety; labeling; and advertising. He said the state would also take steps to limit production so marijuana won't be diverted to other states.
The Justice Department said in its Aug. 29 memo to U.S. attorneys nationwide that it would seek to prosecute people who sell marijuana to minors, use state laws as a cover for drug trafficking or who attempt to distribute marijuana in states where it is not legal.
King County, Wash., Sheriff John Urquhart said he sees little conflict between his state's marijuana laws and federal law enforcement.
"The reality is we do have complimentary goals and values," Urquhart said. "We all agree we don't want our children using marijuana. We all agree we don't want impaired drivers. We all agree we don't want to continue enriching criminals."
The federal government needs to take some steps to help the state meet those goals, particularly easing banking laws to allow them to do business with licensed marijuana business, Urquhart said.
Because it's illegal under federal law for banks to open checking, savings or credit card accounts for marijuana businesses, marijuana stores are cash-only, he said. That makes them prime targets for armed robberies and makes them difficult to audit for tax evasion and wage theft, he said.
"I am simply asking that the federal government allow banks to work with legitimate marijuana businesses who are licensed under this new state law," Urquhart said.
"What we have in Washington is not the wild, wild West," he said. "The message to my deputies has been very clear: You will enforce our new marijuana laws. You will write someone a ticket for smoking in public. You will enforce age limits. You will put unlicensed stores out of business."
Legalizing marijuana without strict controls will create an enormous public health problem similar to what the United States faced with tobacco use, said Kevin Sabet, founder of Project SAM, which advocates for a marijuana policy that focuses on public health, prevention and treatment.
After years of fighting "Big Tobacco," Sabet said, "we are now on the brink of creating 'Big Marijuana.' "
"Authorizing the large-scale, commercial production of marijuana will undoubtedly expand its access and availability," Sabet said. "When we can prevent negative consequences of the commercial sale and production of marijuana now, why would we open the floodgates, hope for the best, and try with limited resources to patch everything up when things go wrong?"
The hearing suggests that "the Senate at last is acknowledging the remarkable shift in public opinion and state laws involving marijuana," Drug Policy Alliance Executive Director Ethan Nadelmann said.
Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, said despite the guidelines, Congress needs to address the federal status of marijuana as a prohibited drug.
"The administration is doing its best to work around federal law, but a better approach would be to simply fix federal law and permanently resolve this conflict," Riffle said.
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