Pubdate: Mon, 16 Sep 2013
Source: Progress-Index, The (VA)
Copyright: New York Times 2013
Note: Editorial from The New York Times


On marijuana policy, there's a rift between the federal government 
and the states. It started with California's allowing marijuana for 
medical use in 1996, widened as several other states followed suit 
and became too big to ignore 10 months ago, when voters in Colorado 
and Washington decided to legalize the drug for recreational use. 
Under federal law possession is still a crime.

After conspicuous silence, the Justice Department announced in August 
that it wouldn't try to put the toothpaste back in the tube - it 
wouldn't sue to block the Colorado and Washington state laws as long 
as those states put in place "strong and effective regulatory and 
enforcement systems." But this policy hasn't cleared up all the 
confusion arising from this tricky situation. Many practical 
questions remain, as became obvious at a Senate Judiciary Committee 
hearing Tuesday about conflicts between state and federal marijuana laws.

At the hearing, James Cole, a deputy attorney general, said the 
Justice Department expects Colorado, Washington state and the 18 
medical marijuana states to prevent the distribution of the drug to 
minors, its diversion to states where it is illegal, and its 
possession or use on federal property, among other restrictions. Sen. 
Charles Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, 
rightly asked how, exactly, the Justice Department would evaluate 
whether the states were holding up their end of the bargain.

If a 17-year-old was caught smoking a joint in Mesa Verde National 
Park in Colorado, would federal prosecutors argue that the state 
wasn't sufficiently tough on enforcement? Common sense says no, but 
guidelines are necessary. Grassley suggested, and Sens. Sheldon 
Whitehouse and Richard Blumenthal, both Democrats, agreed, that the 
Justice Department should establish clear rules and explain what 
violations would trigger a crackdown.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, the committee's Democratic chairman, pointed out 
that the Justice Department has yet to deal with financial issues 
related to state-legalized marijuana. Because federal laws make it 
illegal for banks to handle proceeds from drug sales, most marijuana 
businesses don't have access to financial services and have to 
operate on a cash-only basis. That's a problem for local law 
enforcement - where there are piles of cash, there's armed robbery - 
and for the Internal Revenue Service, too. As Sheriff John Urquhart 
of Washington's King County said, "cash-only businesses are very 
difficult to audit, leading to possible tax evasion, wage theft and 
the diversion of resources we need to protect public safety."

The Justice Department has taken a step toward figuring out this 
peculiar dance between the federal government and the states. If it 
wants its "trust but verify" approach to work, it will have to start 
filling in the details.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom