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Recreational marijuana enforcement addressed by Congress

With the legalization of recreational marijuana use in Colorado and Washington, Congress has taken a greater interest in the issue. On Tuesday the U.S. Congress held their first congressional hearing on the issue with Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) calling for a "smarter approach" to the nation’s marijuana policy. He also noted it’s time to review federal laws which “impede effective regulation of the drug in states where it was legal.” At issue, according to Leahy, is the criminalized approach to the recreational use of marijuana. A policy he claims is not smart and leads to the imprisonment of many non-violent criminals, many of which are African American.

How will the Federal Government enforce recreational marijuana laws?

At stake is how the federal government will enforce the prohibition of recreational marijuana use. Currently two states, Colorado and Washington, allow for the recreational use of marijuana while another 20 states allow for the legal use for medical reasons only. Many Congressmen have a growing concern that states will not be able to regulate the use of recreational marijuana. For instance, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, voiced his concern that Colorado, who recently legalized the drug for marijuana, use has become a “significant exporter” of the drug and has done little to ensure the drug is not transported to other states. In a statement at the meeting Grassley asked, "Why has the Justice Department decided to trust Colorado? Colorado has become a significant exporter of marijuana." The Justice Department also voiced their concerns and believes that they have the right to question state laws if states do not pass the right restrictions, if they fail to control marijuana use or if there is a proliferation of the unlawful sale of the drug. The Justice Department also noted that enforcement must be effective and “backed by adequate funding.”

What is being done in Colorado?

As if on cue, according to the New York Times in an article published today, Colorado adopted its final rules on Monday with 141 pagers of rules covering a wide ranges of topics and issues such as “application and licensing for retail stores; cultivation and manufacturing; testing requirements; inventory tracking; testing and product safety; labeling; and advertising.” How did the Justice Department respond? It sounds like the U.S. Justice Department will concentrate their efforts throughout the United States in several areas: ensuring marijuana is not sold to minors by prosecuting sellers, eliminating the sale of marijuana in states where it is not legal, and enforcing state laws which cover drug trafficking. Law enforcement in Washington notes that they seem to have the same goals in their state as the U.S. Justice Department has for the nation: keeping marijuana away from minors, eliminating impaired driving due to recreational marijuana use and decriminalizing the marijuana market. Law enforcement in Washington has also been told to enforce their own state’s laws. For instance, deputies have been told to enforce age limits, to stop the unlawful selling of marijuana in unlicensed stores and to arrest anyone who is smoking in public.

What do the opponents of recreational marijuana use say?

Opponents of the expansion of the legalization of recreational marijuana admit there has been a strong public policy shift but argue that legalizing marijuana without strict controls will create an enormous public health problem. They also argue that legalizing the “commercial production of marijuana will undoubtedly expand its access and availability.”  One opponent noted that if we are having problems preventing the negative consequences of the commercial sale and production of marijuana now when it is only legal in two states, what will happen if more states legalize the drug?