2014 Brought Clashes Between Federal and State Laws Over Marijuana Legalization
2014 brought great changes in attitudes and policies surrounding marijuana. According to the Pew Research Center, 52 percent of Americans are now in favor of legalizing marijuana. Recreational marijuana was legalized in two more states, making it legal in a total of four. Medical marijuana is available in 23 states, as well as the District of Columbia, and it is decriminalized, meaning that those found with small amounts will not be prosecuted, in 17 states and the District of Columbia.
With these policy changes, new tensions between state and federal policy have emerged. States have been passing marijuana legalization laws that are in direct conflict with federal policy. The Constitution gives ultimate authority to federal laws, meaning the federal government should get the final say on whether marijuana is legal. However, the federal government’s ability to enforce these kinds of laws is often limited, and to do so they must rely heavily on local policies and law enforcement officials. With no state officials enforcing these laws, federal law enforcement officials are left in a difficult position.
The December 2014 federal spending bill showed the federal government’s willingness to compromise with states. The bill included protections for medical cannabis operations, prohibiting the Department of Justice from raiding medical marijuana operations in states where it is legal. This compromise on the part of the federal government reflects a willingness to leave this matter to the states.
Meanwhile, Nebraska and Oklahoma are suing their neighboring state Colorado over its recent legalization of recreational marijuana, hoping that the Supreme Court will declare it unconstitutional. Nebraska and Oklahoma complained that the Colorado law has placed stress on their law enforcement and criminal justice resources. In the lawsuit, they claim that marijuana from Colorado is making its way across state borders, leaving them with the burden of enforcing a federal law. They argue that Colorado’s law is placing a burden on them, forcing them to devote scarce resources to arresting and prosecuting those carrying marijuana from Colorado. If the federal government expects them to enforce federal law, it should have to declare Colorado’s policy unconstitutional.
These new tensions are not surprising given the uncertainty around marijuana and the consequences of legalization. More research needs to be done on the long-term effects of marijuana so lawmakers can make well-informed policies. Until then, these policy clashes are likely to continue.
Margaret Raskob, MPH
Margaret Raskob is a freelance blogger for CASAColumbia