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Marijuana Initiatives Spark States' Rights Legislation

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
DeGette introduced legislation last month which she said is a simple way to maintain federal drug laws while respecting states’ rights.

No matter how its members feel about marijuana use, a bipartisan group of House lawmakers wants to ensure that states can move forward with their marijuana laws without federal interference and has introduced legislation to make that happen.

Efforts to legalize possession of small amounts of the drug for adults ages 21 or older and to establish a system of regulation succeeded in Washington state and Colorado last month, with support from more than 55 percent of each state’s voters.

But marijuana is still classified under federal law as a Schedule I controlled substance — or a drug that has a high potential for abuse, among other criteria — which means it’s illegal in the eyes of the federal government. In a statement, the Justice Department said that its enforcement of the law “remains unchanged” and that it is reviewing the ballot initiatives.

Although Rep. Diana DeGette did not take a public position on Colorado’s amendment — in general, the Democrat said she doesn’t take stances on state legislation — she is concerned that the intent of Colorado voters could be superseded by federal law (PL 91-513). She introduced legislation (HR 6606) on Nov. 27 to prevent the federal statute from pre-empting state laws on marijuana, which she said is a simple way to maintain federal drug laws while respecting states’ rights.

“We’ve already had issues, like a number of other states that have legalized medical marijuana, with the federal government coming in and taking some action that would really harm our businesses in the state,” DeGette said. “So I just think it’s important to have this conversation about what’s the appropriate role of the federal government and the state government.”

Of the bill’s 10 co-sponsors, two are Republican: Reps. Mike Coffman of Colorado and Ron Paul of Texas. Coffman strongly opposes legalizing marijuana but said in a news release that he has “an obligation to respect the will of the voters given the passage of this initiative” and thus feels compelled to support the measure. A Paul spokeswoman said in an email that the retiring congressman also thinks “the voters in those states that have chosen different approaches to marijuana laws should be respected by the federal government.”

A number of other Republicans have also expressed interest in co-sponsoring the bill or voting for it if it receives consideration, DeGette said. But not all members are committed to the effort right now, even within the Colorado delegation.

A spokesman for Republican Rep. Scott Tipton said the congressman thinks discussions between the Colorado governor and the Justice Department will help determine whether federal legislation is necessary or appropriate. Across the Capitol, Sen. Michael Bennet is also waiting for the results of those conversations, according to a spokesman for the Democrat. And Republican Rep. Cory Gardner said he is “not inclined to co-sponsor the measure” and doubts that it will be heard on the House floor.

“I do not believe an individual, state by state approach is workable when it comes to enforcement — or lack of enforcement — of scheduled narcotics,” the he said in an emailed statement.

Acknowledging that it’s unlikely House leadership would bring the bill to the floor during the lame-duck session, DeGette said she hopes its introduction will start the conversation while the issue is still fresh. The Washington state law takes effect Thursday, and Colorado’s could be signed into law anytime from Thursday to Jan. 5.

“I think that a lot of lawmakers have to go through the mental exercise of thinking about states’ rights as they relate to marijuana legislation,” DeGette said.

Democratic Reps. Jared Polis of Colorado and Steve Cohen of Tennessee, co-sponsors of the bill, also appealed directly to the Justice Department and the Drug Enforcement Administration on the issue last month. In a letter with 16 other Democrats, they asked the agencies not to take enforcement action against anyone who complies with a state law regulating medicinal or personal use of marijuana.

“The tide of public opinion is changing, both at the ballot box and in state legislatures across the country,” the lawmakers wrote. “We believe that the collective judgment of voters and state lawmakers must be respected.”

A Justice Department spokeswoman said the letter is under review.

Steve Fox, director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project, said debate has gone on for years over whether the federal government should interfere with the medical marijuana laws that have been enacted in 18 states and the District of Columbia since 1996. Federal involvement has gone up and down over time, he said, ranging from lawsuits to DEA raids to the issuance of letters.

But Fox emphasized that the federal government has never tried to file a lawsuit that would enjoin a state law entirely, indicating that it would be a weak case even if such a suit were filed. He said DeGette’s measure would simply provide clarification and maintained that Congress should play a major role over time in ending the marijuana prohibition at the federal level.

“Until Congress acts, all marijuana-related activity will be illegal under federal law,” he said. “That clearly needs to change.”

According to national poll results released Tuesday by the Marijuana Policy Project, 58 percent of U.S. voters say marijuana should be legalized, compared with 39 percent who oppose the idea.

It also found that 47 percent of voters want President Barack Obama to allow Colorado and Washington state to implement their marijuana laws, while 33 percent say he should use federal resources to prevent them from taking effect.

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