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Senate Holds Hearing on Conflict Between Federal and State Cannabis Laws

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT): “I believe that these state laws should be respected.”


Senate Holds Hearing on Conflict Between Federal and State Cannabis Laws

Taking preemptive action against states that have voted to legalize recreational cannabis may result in the proliferation of an unregulated market thus, the federal government will continue to focus on specific marijuana enforcement priorities at this time, Deputy Attorney General James Cole said in Senate Judiciary Committee hearing today.

“The department reserved its right to challenge the state laws at a later time,” Cole said in reference to a U.S. Department of Justice memo released late last month. “A jurisdiction’s regulatory scheme must be tough in practice not just on paper.”

Today’s hearing, which served to address discrepancies between state and federal marijuana laws, also included John Urquhart, a sheriff in Washington, Jack Finlaw, chief Legal counsel for Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, and Kevin Sabet, director of the Drug Policy Institute of the University of Florida. The hearing was lead by Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, who questioned Cole regarding whether the federal government may bring a lawsuit against states to challenge the regulation of substances as it is not within its rights to directly criminalize marijuana.

“Perhaps, yes. We reserve that right,” Cole said. “We are going to aggressively enforce the law. We expect to enforce it in every state whether the states legalize it or not.”

The hearing also included questions surrounding banking and tax issues within a legalized cannabis market. Leahy was the first to point out problems with the banking industry not working with marijuana businesses, resulting in cash-only security situations. Leahy went on to question DEA instructions for armored car services not to work with those in the marijuana industry.

“Obviously there is a public safety concern when businesses have a lot of cash around,” Cole said in response while stating the DEA was merely asking questions of armored car services and that this action took place before the August 29 guideline memo.

The recent guideline memo instructed federal prosecutors not to interfere with state marijuana laws as long as a number of stipulations are adhered to, such as preventing distribution to minors or across state lines. Washington and Colorado legalized recreational cannabis in November and 20 states, as well as the District of Columbia, have legalized medicinal marijuana.

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