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WASHINGTON, DC – The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the conflict between state and federal marijuana laws Tuesday that included Deputy Attorney General James Cole; Sheriff John Urquhart of King County, Washington; Colorado governor John Hickenlooper’s chief legal counsel Jack Finlaw and others.
The move comes shortly after major announcements from the Department of Justice limiting the use of mandatory minimums and declaring that the federal government will respect democratically enacted state marijuana laws as long as states smartly regulate the trade. Advocates hope these announcements signal a shift in administration policy toward more sensible drug laws, though federal laws remain unchanged.
Cole did not challenge states’ rights to make their own drug laws, only restated the federal government’s right to challenge their regulatory schemes in pursuing certain priorities, such as preventing sales to minors, trafficking to other states, impaired driving, and increases in violence.
Senators Leahy and Whitehouse and both state representatives repeatedly stated the need for greater clarification of federal policy, particularly in relation to guidelines which prohibit financial institutions, security services, landlords and others from doing business with marijuana providers.
Cole responded that they were working on establishing regulations for financial institutions, landlords would be protected, and that the DEA had merely asked questions of armed car and other security services, and had not issued an injunction forbidding them from working with marijuana businesses.
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D, RI) also brought up the federal government’s conflicting instructions on marijuana enforcement in the past, but Deputy Cole merely affirmed the government’s right to intervene on a case-by-case basis.
Both state representatives were fully supportive of their states’ new laws and repeatedly affirmed their belief that sensible regulations (restrictions on advertising, regulation of place and manner of sale, security requirements, laws against vertical integration, etc.) would ensure they complied with the federal government’s areas of concern.
Representatives from Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of law enforcement officials opposed to the war on drugs watched the hearing with interest. LEAP board member and 36-year Denver cop Tony Ryan commented on the hearing that “For years, the legalization movement has been gaining traction as people learn this is neither a fringe issue nor a partisan one, but one responsible for deep inequities in our justice system, the expansion of criminal gangs and the increase in unsolved violent crimes. There’s a long road ahead, and this hearing leaves many questions unanswered, but this historic discussion means we are on our way to a more rational and effective drug policy.”
“While I would have liked to have seen a substantive change in policy, what we were really listening to in that hearing was the sound of a changing political climate,” said retired Seattle police chief and LEAP speaker Norm Stamper. “People who can’t agree on any other political issue are coming together over this one, and politicians on both sides of the aisle ignore that at their own peril.”
Law Enforcement Against Prohibition is an international 501(c) 3 nonprofit organization of criminal justice professionals who bear personal witness to the wasteful futility and harms of our current drug policies. Our experience on the front lines of the “war on drugs” has led us to call for a repeal of prohibition and its replacement with a tight system of legalized regulation, which will effectively cripple the violent cartels and street dealers who control the current illegal market.