Federal response to marijuana legalization unclear

Users of marijuana nationwide are waiting with great interest to see what the response of the federal government will be to the state law legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington. The measures approved the legal possession of small quantities of the drug by adults for private recreational use, going beyond previous changes in the laws of 18 states which permitted the legal use of marijuana for medical purposes such as relief of pain.

There is much speculation that the federal government will claim that the new state laws are preempted by federal law, which still regards marijuana use of any kind, whether for recreational or medical use, as unlawful.

In cases where states have previously authorized legal use of medical marijuana, the federal government has continued in those jurisdictions to enforce federal laws on the subject, with varying degrees of aggressiveness. In some instances, this has meant crackdowns on medical marijuana dispensaries in particular, but prosecutions for individual possession are not unheard of, despite prescriptions.

Still, few think that the federal enforcement efforts anticipated in Washington and Colorado will primarily target individuals accused of possession of small quantities of marijuana for personal recreational use. Far more likely are efforts to combat state laws and expected regulations that will enable marijuana sales in those states. It may be as long away as 2014 before those regulatory systems are in place in the two states.

Both legalization measures call for the establishment of state regulatory schemes governing the taxation, licensing, and regulation of the drug. They also strictly limit sales to persons over the age of 21 and do not authorize smoking of marijuana in public places. In Colorado, the measure permits individuals to grow as many as six marijuana plants in their home for their own use.

Source: Minnesota Post, "How will Feds deal with marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington?," Mark Guarino, November 13, 2012

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