With Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) at its helm, the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday sought clarity from a top law enforcement official on how to reconcile conflicting federal and state marijuana laws.
At a Capitol Hill hearing, the committee zeroed in on the Department of Justice's announcement last month that it would permit Colorado and Washington to host a regulated marijuana industry. The two states passed referenda last year to legalize recreational use of the drug by adults.
Deputy Attorney General James Cole, a star witness at the hearing, issued a memo Aug. 29 advising prosecutors to focus enforcement on those who sell the drug to minors, distribute it to states where it remains illegal or use state laws as a cover for drug trafficking.
“The absolute criminalization of personal marijuana use has contributed to our nation’s soaring prison population and has disproportionately affected people of color,” Leahy said. “I do not believe that federal agents and prosecutors should be devoting scarce investigative resources to pursuing low-level users of marijuana who are in compliance with state law. As the President said last year, there are bigger fish to fry.”
Of particular concern to Leahy was whether and how businesses that legally sell marijuana could utilize banking services, given the hazy legal landscape. Cole said his department, too, worried such businesses might remain cash-only, leading to security and tax problems.
John Urquhart, sheriff of King County, Wash., told committee members that local, state and federal law enforcement officials share plenty of common ground in their pursuit of impaired drivers and underage marijuana users, but suggested the federal government ease its banking laws for legitimate marijuana businesses.
"What we have in Washington is not the wild, wild West," Urquhart said.
Kevin Sabet, director of the University of Florida's Drug Policy Institute, warned committee members of potential public health concerns presented by rushing to legalize marijuana for commercial purposes.
"We are now on the brink of creating 'Big Marijuana,'" Sabet said.
“The questions and issues we discuss today have implications for the rest of the country,” Leahy said, mentioning that 21 states have legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes and 16 have decriminalized it. Vermont, he noted, belongs in both categories.
Earlier in the day, the Marijuana Policy Project, a legalization advocacy group, used the occasion to announce a campaign to end the drug's prohibition in Vermont and nine other states by 2017. The group played a role in a successful bid earlier this year to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana in Vermont.