Senators grapple with federal-state marijuana law enforcement

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WASHINGTON – Senators searched for a balance Tuesday between increasingly lenient state and federal laws concerning marijuana.

“Experts fear they will create a big marijuana industry, including a Starbucks of marijuana,” Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, said.

Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee spoke at a hearing with people on the frontlines of the marijuana issue. Twenty states and the District of Columbia have laws allowing medical marijuana, and 16 of those have decriminalized possession of small amounts. Colorado and Washington have legalized the recreational use of marijuana.

The motivation for the hearing was the recent release by the Department of Justice of eight main priorities it will use to enforce federal marijuana laws in states that have approved the use of some form of marijuana. The two most talked about priorities were preventing the distribution of marijuana to minors and preventing the trafficking of marijuana from states where it is legal to other states.

Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole answered senators’ questions about the department’s eight priorities.

John Urquhart, sheriff of King County, which includes Seattle, was optimistic about the new federal enforcement rule and said his officers are committed to “robust enforcement” of state laws.

One question has been how police officers will be able to tell if drivers are under the influence of marijuana. He said that there is now a standard of intoxication for marijuana – 0.5 nanograms per milliliter – similar to the standard for alcohol intoxication.

He said he has been training his deputies about how to detect if someone is under the influence of drugs.

“When they go to the scene of a suspected drunk driver that’s under the influence of narcotics, whether it’s any narcotic or marijuana, they can test that driver to see if they need to arrest that person and take them in for a blood test,” Urquhart said.

Critics of the DOJ’s eight priorities said “opening the floodgates” to marijuana will increase interstate trafficking and will inevitably lead to minors obtaining marijuana that is intended for adult use.

“We’ve seen them being handed out like candy,” said Kevin A. Sabet, director of the University of Florida Drug Policy Institute. “Even though the packaging is sterile you can still have gummy, candy-shaped, attractive-to-kids marijuana products.”

The other issue is that banks refuse to give loans or have other dealings with businesses that violate federal laws. This forces marijuana dispensaries to operate as cash-only businesses, making them targets for theft.

“That’s a prescription for problems,” Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., said.

Two ways to resolve this issue are to change the tax code or federally decriminalize marijuana.

All parties agreed that the DOJ needs more specific means to decide how and when the federal government would go after those breaking the federal marijuana law.

“There can be a lot of unintended circumstances from the broad zone of uncertainty that you can create,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said.

The hearing may not settle the discrepancy between state and federal marijuana laws but Urquhart said that he knows what the residents of his state want.

“What they want is legalized marijuana, and that’s a big deal I think.”

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Editor’s note: this story was previously published by Scripps Howard Foundation Wire.

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