The legalization of marijuana by voter-approved referendums in Washington and Colorado last month sets up a confrontation between the states and federal government over policies in conflict with national laws prohibiting marijuanas use.
On Thursday, it became legal for adults over the age of 21 in Washington to possess up to an ounce of marijuana. However, it is still illegal to smoke it in public or sell it so there is no place to purchase it legally, at least not until the state sets up a licensing system to regulate growers and sellers. And, of course, tax them, which could bring in millions of dollars in a legal market. A similar law takes effect in Colorado next month. They are among nearly two dozen states that have decriminalized small amounts of marijuana or permit its medical use.
Asserting the federal governments role in setting a national drug policy, the U.S. attorney in Seattle warned Washington state residents that marijuana use remained illegal under the Controlled Substances Act. As in other states, users and sellers can still be prosecuted under federal law. However, the Obama administration has yet to devise an enforcement strategy.
Prosecuting low-level marijuana use has generally been left to the states. The Justice Department could assume that responsibility in Washington, Colorado and other states, but that would divert resources from pursuing large-scale smuggling operations and international drug cartels as well as clog federal courts with minor offenses. The government could also challenge the state laws directly as pre-empting a federal prerogative. A third possibility is to hit states financially by withholding federal grants until they bring their laws into compliance with federal laws.
Federal enforcement, though, is at odds with public opinion, according to a USA Today/Gallup poll. Americans are evenly divided on decriminalization with 50 percent opposed to 47 percent in favor. However, 63 percent said the federal government show not enforce federal laws where states have legalized pot.
The issue could come soon to New York, where possession of 25 grams or less is a violation rather than a crime as long as it is not in public view. However, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo earlier this year proposed decriminalizing public possession, but not public use of small amounts.
In may take a years-long court battle all the way to the Supreme Court to resolve the federal governments enforcement role. But in the meantime, a once uniform national policy is becoming a confusing hodgepodge of state and federal laws re-igniting a debate over our national drug strategy.