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Marijuana Legalization: Obama Warns States to Abide by Federal Law On Marijuana

Not so fast Washington State potheads. Before you roll that blunt, light that doobie, and pass that joint, know that recreational marijuana possession and distribution is still a federal offense and the Obama administration wants you to know it.

On November 6, Washington and Colorado became the first two states to legalize recreational usage of marijuana. The voter-sponsored legislation went into effect on December 6 in Washington. The popular voter-supported initiative has created a gap and a conflict in state and federal law enforcement. A multi-federal-agency taskforce, including the Department of Justice and the Drug Enforcement Agency, has been contemplating how to respond to the gap created by the voter initiative.

The marijuana initiative places the federal government at odds with a large portion of President Obama’s base, who support decriminalization of drugs and the legalization of marijuana. It also provides a wedge issue for Obama’s opposition, including Libertarians who support the decriminalization of drugs but vehemently oppose everything about Obama. Although republicans are not overwhelmingly in support of the legalization of marijuana, they do support state’s rights. Any attempt by the Obama administration to interfere in matters of state creates an opportunity for Republicans and Libertarians to lament the overreach of the federal government into state and local law. Jon Caldara, president of the Denver-based Independence Institute wrote, “This is a massive opportunity for those of us who fear the growing central authority in D.C.”  Watchdog.orgs’s Steve Greenhut noted, The best news isn’t that pot will be legal in two states, but that the legalization victories could point the way to a broader, pro-freedom movement.” If Obama doesn’t instruct local law enforcement to uphold the federal law, then that creates an opportunity for Obama opponents to once again suggest that he is an “imperial president” ignoring his constitutional duties to enforce the law.

Bruce Buchanan, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Austin, told the New York Times, “It’s a sticky wicket for Obama.”  Federal law prohibits growing, selling, or possessing any amount of marijuana. Law enforcement officials have acknowledged concerns that the state marijuana laws may set a precedent of flouting federal law. The United States Attorney in Seattle, Jenny A. Durkan, issued a strong admonition to Washington marijuana users: the “department’s responsibility to enforce the Controlled Substances Act remains unchanged.” The federal government is also contemplating bring legal action against the states if they try to implement “systems to regulate and tax marijuana.”

NORML.org reports that “congressional lawmakers have introduced legislation to halt federal interference in state marijuana laws.” The bipartisan House Bill 6606, The Respect States' and Citizens' Rights Act of 2012 “seeks to amend the U.S. Controlled Substances Act to provide that federal law shall not preempt state marijuana laws.” U.S. Representative Sam Farr (D-Calif.) said, “The federal government’s failure to develop a reasonable approach towards the varying state marijuana use laws has made this legislation necessary.”

No timetable has been set to resolve the matter between the states and the federal government. Until now, the Obama administration had instructed federal officials to use their limited resources to focus on large trafficking organizations, largely ignoring the small-time recreational user. This had the unintended consequence of increasing federal raids on legal medical marijuana dispensaries. However, the Department of Justice has signaled to the states  that they will continue the raids. The New York Times reported that the Department of Justice sent letters to governors encouraging them to “revise or back away from plans to make the medical marijuana industry more mainstream.”

For now, the residents of Washington should heed the advice of Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, “don’t break out the Cheetos or Gold Fish too quickly.”

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