US Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, announced Monday that he would hold a hearing next month on the Justice Department's response to marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington and legal medical marijuana in 20 states and the District of Columbia. The hearing is set for September 10.
"It is important, especially at a time of budget constraints, to determine whether it is the best use of federal resources to prosecute the personal or medicinal use of marijuana in states that have made such consumption legal," Leahy said in a statement Monday. "I believe that these state laws should be respected. At a minimum, there should be guidance about enforcement from the federal government."
After Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana last November, Leahy sent a letter to the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy asking that the Obama administration make public its position on the matter. Although Holder said in February that a Justice Department response would be coming "relatively soon," it still hasn't appeared.
State officials in Colorado and Washington said last week that they thought the Justice Department had given them "tacit approval" to move forward with their plans to implement marijuana regulation, taxation, and legalization. Leahy, who has said he supports the efforts in those two states, would like to get something more definitive from the Justice Department.
In the meantime, while the feds are silent on how they will deal with legalization, federal prosecutors and the DEA have kept up the pressure on medical marijuana producers and distributors. Since the Cole memo came out two years ago, hundreds of dispensaries have been raided and hundreds more subjected to federal "threat letters." While actual prosecutions have been more rare, the result has been a reduction in access to medical marijuana for patients in areas where dispensaries have been forced out of business.
Leahy isn't the only one in Congress who is interested in federal marijuana policy. At least seven bills have been filed, most with bipartisan sponsorship, addressing federal marijuana policy. They range from bills to legalize hemp and marijuana to bills that would prevent the use of the IRS to crack down on medical marijuana dispensaries.
Holder won kudos from many drug reformers earlier this month when he announced his support for further sentencing reforms, but medical marijuana and marijuana legalization advocates were disappointed that he did not address the tension and contradictions between state and federal marijuana policies. Now, it appears that Leahy is going to force the issue, and marijuana reform advocates couldn't be more pleased.
"This is an important development for all sorts of reasons -- not least because the Senate has been so remarkably passive on marijuana issues even as twenty states have legalized medical marijuana and two have legalized it more broadly. I am delighted that Senator Leahy now seems ready to provide much needed leadership on this issue," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.
"The ballot initiatives in Washington and Colorado made history not so much because they legalized possession of small amounts of marijuana but because they mandated that state governments regulate and tax what had previously been illicit markets," Nadelmann continued. "Ending marijuana prohibition not just in the states but also nationally is going to require the sort of leadership that Senator Leahy is now providing. Now is the time for his colleagues to stand up as well in defense of responsible state regulation of marijuana."
"Two states have made marijuana legal for adult use and are establishing regulated systems of production and distribution. Twenty states plus our nation's capital have made it legal for medical use. By failing to recognize the decisions of voters and legislators in those states, current federal law is undermining their ability to implement and enforce those laws," said Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project.
"Marijuana prohibition's days are numbered, and everyone in Washington knows that," Riffle continued. "It's time for Congress to stop ignoring the issue and develop a policy that allows states to adopt the most efficient and effective marijuana laws possible. We need to put the 'reefer madness' policies of the 1930s behind us and adopt an evidence-based approach for the 21st Century."
"We're still waiting for the administration to announce its response to the marijuana legalization laws in Colorado and Washington, a policy that the attorney general has been saying is coming 'relatively soon' since December," said Tom Angell, head of Marijuana Majority. "If the administration is serious about using law enforcement resources in a smarter way, it should be a no-brainer to strongly direct federal prosecutors to respect the majority of voters by allowing these groundbreaking state laws to be implemented without interference."
It ought to be an interesting, and perhaps, historic hearing. It's two weeks away.