New marijuana laws cause confusion

Laws legalizing the recreational use of marijuana in Colorado and Washington state have exposed a wide disconnect between Congress, the administration and voters on an increasingly controversial issue. 

The newly enacted laws put President Obama in a tricky spot, as evidenced by the Justice Department’s (DOJ) monthlong silence on the matter, despite pleas from lawmakers and the states’ governors for a concrete position. 


The DOJ is charged with enforcing the federal prohibition on marijuana, and the state laws run counter to the long-existing ban, creating a debate over which law should be enforced and which law is most responsive to the will of the people. 

Marijuana has been a centerpiece of the federal government’s “war on drugs,” aimed at cracking down on drug use in the United States. But the growing number of people who support the decriminalization of pot — which is still legally classified nationally in the same category as heroin — has some policymakers in Washington, D.C., rethinking their approach.

“The voters of Colorado have spoken,” said Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) in an interview with The Hill. “I’m certainly opposed to the direction that the state is going, but I respect the will of voters and the process.

“Either the Justice Department needs to recognize, in its enforcement, the state’s right to choose, or we need conforming legislation at a federal level.”

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Many supporters of the new rules are hoping the administration moves to moderate the DOJ’s prosecution of marijuana possession, cultivation and distribution in Colorado and Washington state. 

The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) told The Hill that while it has not received any revised investigatory directives from the administration since the laws were enacted, the agency prioritizes large-scale cultivation and distribution networks over smaller personal use and distribution when it considers which cases to spend time and money on. 

According to the most recent Gallup poll, released this week, 64 percent of people think the federal government should not enforce national law prohibiting marijuana use in Colorado or Washington state. And 87 percent of people polled said marijuana should be legal throughout the country. 

Former President Jimmy Carter said on Tuesday, during a CNN forum, that he supports legalizing marijuana. On the several occasions Obama, through social networks, has asked the public for its questions, participants have voted overwhelmingly in favor of marijuana legalization as the leading topic. 

But the administration has been quiet for the past month, holding several private discussions with the governors of Colorado and Washington while maintaining a public approach of wait-and-see. 


“The Department of Justice is reviewing the legalization initiatives passed in Colorado and Washington state,” the DOJ said in its initial statement after the passage of the laws. “The department’s enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act remains unchanged.”

Both Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) and Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) have talked with either Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderOne quick asylum fix: How Garland can help domestic violence survivors First redistricting lawsuits filed by Democratic group On The Trail: Census data kicks off the biggest redistricting fight in American history MORE or Deputy Attorney General James Cole within the past month, but have received no assurances of any progress, according to spokesmen for the governors. 

A looming concern for the governors is that their states will spend a good deal of time and money in an effort to conform with the new laws — building a new tax and regulatory structure, incorporating the sale of marijuana into commerce laws and training law enforcement officers to test the THC levels of drivers — only to have the DOJ continue to prosecute criminal marijuana cases involving their voters. 

“We don’t want to get so far down the road and then have the process stopped,” said Cory Curtis, a spokesman for Gregoire.

“If we’re stopped in the eleventh hour and we’ve already put in the money, which is several million dollars, we’d rather know on the front end. And for citizens, they should be able to know what the ground rules are,” Curtis said.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the western district of Washington has publicly gone further than the DOJ, giving a small indication of how the agency could be leaning. The office said in a statement that the ball lies in Congress’s court: “Neither states nor the executive branch can nullify a statute passed by Congress.” 

Anticipating their role in helping to iron out the differences between the state and federal law, a small group of members is supporting a legislative fix put forward by Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) that would allow a state’s marijuana laws not to be trumped by federal drug laws. 

DeGette has been talking with Hickenlooper at length, as well as with Republicans, about a bill she introduced two weeks ago, which already has Coffman and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) as co-sponsors. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), an avid supporter of decriminalizing marijuana, told The Hill that he would also be in favor of backing the bill. 

But not all Republicans are convinced that legalizing marijuana is the correct approach. A spokesman for Rep. Scott Tipton said the Colorado Republican has “serious concerns” about the damaging effect the law could have on children, and is waiting for the DOJ and Hickenlooper to finish their discussions on the issue. 

The DOJ has not responded to Hickenlooper’s Nov. 13 letter to Holder asking for clarification on how the department plans to proceed.