By Kevin Joseph Ryan
Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy has said, as of Thursday that the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Leahy chairs, will be holding hearings regarding federal enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act, in light of the legalization of marijuana in both Washington state and Colorado during the November elections.
Leahy, in his role as Judiciary Chairman, sent a request to Gil Kerlikowske, the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy via letter, December 6, to clarify the intentions of that office in enforcing federal drug law. Marijuana remains essentially illegal under federal law in any amount and for any reason. However, 20 states as of the end of 2012 have made marijuana legal in some form, either for prescribed medicinal use or most recently, as with Washington and Colorado, legalized it entirely.
In his letter, Leahy questions Director Kerlikowske as to how he intends he proceed following the recent legalization efforts. Leahy asked, “How does the Office of National Drug Control Policy intend to prioritize Federal resources, and what recommendations are you making to the Department of Justice and other agencies in light of the choice by citizens of Colorado and Washington to legalize personal use of small amounts of marijuana? What assurance can and will the administration give to state officials involved in the licensing of marijuana retailers that they will not face Federal criminal penalties for carrying out duties assigned to them under state law?” It should be noted that while the new Washington law provides for marijuana retailing, similarly as with liquor, the Colorado policy, which is a state constitutional amendment, simply allows for possession, distribution without sales and personal use.
The Letter suggests that one option to synchronize federal and state policies is to alter the Federal Controlled Substances Act to allow for possession of marijuana in states where it is legal. Such a move would be legally questionable as it would create a federal policy that the drug law applies one way in some states, but differently in others. Leahy goes on to imply as stated above that state employees facilitating the licensing and sale of marijuana may require additional legal protections, although federal law enforcement has been largely hands-off in this area. Despite this letter, Leahy spokesperson David Carle noted that “He has not taken a view on decriminalization.”
Vermont, which of course Leahy represents in the U.S. Senate, may be dealing with this issue very soon, as the State Legislature is expected to take up marijuana legalization which it comes back in session in January. Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin has lent his support to the passage of such a bill. “When we look at our drug policy in this state right now, were facing some major challenges, some hurdles. It seems that almost every day, there’s some accident, some tragedy, that reminds us that Oxycontin, that heroin, that other drugs are driving crime, driving addiction, breaking up families and leading to tragedy. To spend our limited law-enforcement resources going after folks who are using small amounts of marijuana just doesn‘t make any sense. Now, a lot of other states have figured that out already. Vermont usually is a leader, on this one, we‘re a lagger, but I think we should get it done.”, said Governor Shumlin at a press conference in November.
The national marijuana reform movement will be no doubt watching this issue closely, and Tom Angell, the National Chairman of Marijuana Majority told TNR that he is well aware of the Governor’s support on the issue of marijuana policy. Angell, quoted today in the Huffington Post, gave TNR permission to reuse his quote here. “Sen. Leahy’s proposal to have the federal government keep its hands off anyone who possesses an ounce or less of marijuana in accordance with state law would be a significant step in the right direction, but the Obama administration needs to respect every provision of these voter-approved laws. If the feds prevent the state-regulated systems for marijuana sales from being enacted, drug cartels and gangs will continue to dominate the marijuana market. Under this scenario, criminals who don’t pay taxes will be the only ones selling marijuana to people who can possess an ounce.”
The Green Mountains may have a whole new meaning with Mr. Leahy and Mr. Shumlin at the helm.