Justice

Influential Senator Hints Federal Government Should Decriminalize Small Amounts Of Marijuana Possession

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) signaled his willingness this week to consider amending federal drug law to permit possession of small amounts of marijuana, or at least exempt new state marijuana laws from the federal drug scheme.

In a letter to the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy released Thursday, Leahy sought guidance on how the Department of Justice might “prioritize Federal resources” in reacting to the passage of laws in Washington and Colorado that legalize and regulate recreational marijuana. He wrote:

Legislative options exist to resolve the differences between Federal and state law in this area and end the uncertainty that residents of Colorado and Washington now face. One option would be to amend the Federal Controlled Substances Act to allow possession of up to one ounce of marijuana, at least in jurisdictions where it is legal under state law. In order to give these options full consideration, the Committee needs to understand how the administration intends to respond to the decision of the voters in Colorado and Washington. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this matter.

Leahy is not the first member of Congress to seek amendments to the federal Controlled Substances Act, which currently bans all possession and distribution of marijuana, though he may be the highest ranking. Two Colorado House members introduced a bill last month to exempt states with their own marijuana laws from the CSA. Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO), who strongly opposed Colorado’s marijuana legalization law, joined Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) in sponsoring the proposal. A number of other members of Congress have implored the Obama administration to refrain from prosecuting those in compliance with state law.

Leahy also announced Thursday that the Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing to probe how the Obama administration plans to react. Since the passage of the Colorado and Washington laws last month, the administration has provided little clear guidance, frustrating both states’ governors as they begin to implement the new measures. Last month, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said in a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder that he needs a response “as soon as possible.” The first indication that a response may be imminent came from Holder yesterday, when he said he said the Department will likely respond “relatively soon.” “There is a tension between federal law and these state laws,” he said.

Immediately after the passage of the two ballot initiatives, the DOJ and the Drug Enforcement Administration released identical statements saying only that enforcement of federal drug law “remains unchanged.” And on the day the Washington law went into effect, the U.S. attorney in Seattle reminded state residents that possession, use and sale of marijuana is still a federal crime.