Senate Panel Tackles Marijuana Laws

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA: Federal laws pose “significant obstacles” to regulation of marijuana in states where it is legal and need to be addressed, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said Tuesday in a first-ever hearing aimed at reconciling rapidly changing state marijuana laws with a federal prohibition on the drug.

“We must have a smarter approach to marijuana policy,” Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said. “Marijuana use in this country is nothing new, but the way that individual states are dealing with marijuana continues to evolve.”

The hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee follows a Justice Department memo outlining how it will enforce federal marijuana prohibitions in two states, Colorado and Washington, that have legalized its use, and 20 states that allow marijuana for medical use.

The Justice Department reserved its right to challenge state laws if public health or safety problems emerge or if the states fail to enact strict regulations to control marijuana use and sale, Deputy Attorney General James Cole, author of the memo, said in written testimony submitted to the Senate panel.

The states’ regulations must be “tough in practice, not just on paper,” Cole said. “It must include strong enforcement efforts, backed by adequate funding.”

The committee is scheduled to hear testimony from Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper’s chief legal counsel, Jack Finlaw, and Deputy Attorney General James Cole, the author of the memo.

The Justice Department said in its Aug. 29 memo to U.S. attorneys nationwide that it would seek only to prosecute people who sell marijuana to minors, use state laws as a cover for drug trafficking or who attempt to distribute marijuana in states where it is not legal.

Even if the Justice Department eases up on federal prosecutions, free use and sale of marijuana in Colorado and Washington is hampered by federal banking laws that prohibit marijuana retailers from taking credit cards and opening business accounts and federal tax policy.

The hearing suggests that “the Senate at last is acknowledging the remarkable shift in public opinion and state laws involving marijuana,” Drug Police Alliance Executive Director Ethan Nadelmann said.SEN

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