While most of the nation was abuzz on Tuesday with predictions of what type of action President Obama would call on Congress to approve for Syria in his speech that night, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, held a hearing regarding the “Conflicts Between State and Federal Marijuana Laws.”
While Sen. Leahy’s home state of Vermont has not legalized marijuana for either medical or recreational use, the senator called for the hearing last month and said he believes state laws legalizing marijuana for adult or medical use “should be respected” by the federal government.
In an interview with the Atlantic last week, Leahy, a former prosecutor, said, “I’ve long urged the federal government to stay away from states where they have legalized the use of marijuana, or legalized medical marijuana, and the reason I am holding my hearings is to get a very clear understanding of what they want to do.
“We only have so many resources for law enforcement and … to waste time on these minor marijuana measures or waste time on marijuana in states where it is legal makes absolutely no sense,” he continued.
Those who testified at the hearing included Deputy Attorney General James Cole, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper’s Chief Legal Counsel Jack Finlaw, King County Sheriff John Urquhart of Washington state and Drug Policy Institute Director Kevin Sabet.
Tuesday’s hearing came about a week after the U.S. Department of Justice issued a memorandum announcing that it had decided to defer its legal right to challenge the marijuana legalization laws in Colorado and Washington, and would not file a lawsuit against either state for failure to follow the laws under the federal Controlled Substance Act.
As Mint Press News previously reported, while the DOJ announced last week it did not have plans to sue the two states that legalized recreational marijuana “at this time,” the government entity said nothing about states that had legalized medical marijuana and reserved the right to sue Washington and Colorado at a later date.
Also absent from the memorandum was the fate of medical marijuana patients, such as 53-year-old Jerry Duval, who are currently serving time behind bars even though they had obeyed state laws, as well as how the federal government might respond to the messy legalities of marijuana-related businesses’ attempts to use federally insured banks.
Due to marijuana’s illegal status on the federal level, it is illegal for banks to open checking, savings or credit card accounts for marijuana businesses. The result is that marijuana stores operate as cash-only businesses, which means businesses become prime targets for armed robberies and are difficult to audit, opening the door to tax evasion and wage theft.
Though part of the hearing focused on the new marijuana legalization laws in Colorado and Washington, the marijuana advocates who testified urged members of the Senate Judiciary Committee to specifically question the DOJ on how its new policy will affect law enforcement practices that have caused hundreds of thousands of patients to lose access to medical marijuana.
In a press release, Steph Sherer, executive director of Americans for Safe Access, said, “The DOJ doesn’t have a great track record of honesty when it comes to testifying before Congress and an even worse record of wrangling U.S. Attorneys to follow their policies.”
Sherer backed up these claims in an article recently published at the Huffington Post, which included statements from multiple U.S. attorney’s in states such as Washington and California who said they don’t anticipate much change in how their offices handle marijuana cases. “It appears that the cases that have been brought in this district are already in compliance with the guidelines,” one U.S. attorney was quoted as saying.
Advocates vs. prohibitionists
One of the first to testify on Tuesday was Sheriff John Urquhart of King County, Wash. A police officer for 37 years, 12 of which he spent as a narcotics detective, Urquhart said, “My experience shows the war on drugs has been a failure. We have not significantly reduced demand over time, but we have incarcerated generations of individuals, the highest incarceration rate in the world.”
“While the title of this hearing is conflict between state and federal marijuana laws, I don’t see a huge conflict. The reality is we do have complimentary goals and values. We all agree we don’t want our children using marijuana. We all agree we don’t want impaired drivers. We all agree we don’t want to continue enriching criminals. Washington’s law honors these values by separating consumers from gangs, and diverting the proceeds from the sale of marijuana toward furthering the goals of public safety.”
A self-described “strong supporter” of Washington’s legislation to legalize marijuana for recreational use — Initiative 502 — last year, Urquhart says he remains a supporter because “that’s what the people want.” His testimony concluded with talk of reconciliation:
“They voted for legalized marijuana. We — the government — have failed the people and now they want to try something else. Too often the attitude of the police is ‘We’re the cops and you’re not. Don’t tell us how to do our job.’ That is the wrong attitude and I refuse to fall into that trap. […]
Is legalizing and regulating the possession and sale of marijuana a better alternative? I think it is, and I’m willing to be proven wrong. But the only way we’ll know is if we are allowed to try. […]
In closing, let me make one thing absolutely clear. What we have in Washington state is not the ‘wild wild west.’ And as sheriff, I am committed to continued collaboration with the DEA, FBI and DOJ for robust enforcement of our respective drug laws.”
In his testimony, Cole reiterated what the DOJ laid out in its Aug. 29, 2013 memorandum, while Jack Finlaw, legal counsel to Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D), rehashed what was in Colorado’s legalization legislation and how the state planned to safely regulate all aspects of its budding marijuana industry.
The only person to testify in opposition to any sort of legalization, be it at a state or federal level, was Kevin Sabet, director of the Drug Policy Institute, who expressed concerns about the effect legalization would have on a variety of issues ranging from children’s health to America’s relationship with other nations.
“Anyone who has been to Colorado since 2009 can get a sense of what full legalization looks like already. Mass advertising, promotion, using items that are attractive to kids – like ‘medical marijuana lollipops,’ ‘Ring Pots,’ ‘Pot-Tarts’ etc. – are all characteristics of current policy,” Sabet said. “What has been the result of this de facto legalization for kids? For one, drug-related referrals for high school students testing positive for marijuana have increased.”
Sabet referenced a study in the medical journal JAMA Pediatrics, which found that “unintentional marijuana poisonings among kids have risen significantly since marijuana as medicine has become available.” However, during the questioning that followed testimony at the hearing and during a Google hangout hosted by Americans for Safe Access, medical marijuana advocate Dr. Sunil Kumar Aggarwal pointed out that while it may be an unpleasant experience, a child who consumes marijuana left lying around the house will survive — unlike a child who consumes a potent drug such as morphine.
During his testimony, Sabet also referenced an article that cited Jeff Sweeting, the special agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in Colorado, who claimed there are foreign cartel sources influencing state lawmakers’ push to legalize marijuana. “Sweetin says a large percentage of the pot consumed by medical marijuana patients ‘absolutely’ comes from Mexico,” said Sabet. “These are real organized crime groups. There’s a faction that wants you to believe that these are just guys that are listening to their music, they’re driving their van, they’re peaceful guys and they’re moving a couple of ounces a week to people that are not doing any problems. That’s not what’s happening.”
Sabet said marijuana advocates who make the argument that no one has been arrested for tobacco use completely “neglect the social norm and media environment that has emerged in the past two decades against tobacco. Tobacco is looked down upon by many young people precisely because of government and non-governmental efforts to make it so. There is no more a multimillion dollar campaign to legitimize tobacco like there is today for marijuana, and certainly no one is making claims that tobacco is harmless, as advocates routinely do.”