By Jonathan H. Adler
In 2009, the Obama Administration announced a new federal policy regarding marijuana in states in which medical marijuana has been legalized. The policy statement instructed federal prosecutors not to devote federal resources to prosecuting those who use or supply medical marijuana in strict compliance with state law. At the time, Ilya and I praised the new policy, though Ilya was quite skeptical it would make much difference.
Since the policy it was announced, it appears the policy has been difficult to maintain, and prosecutions of medical marijuana distributors has continued, largely because the federal government fears that some marijuana distributors are serving more than the medicinal marijuana market. As the NYT reports, federal prosecutors appear to be escalating efforts to go after marijuana distributors in medical marijuana states.
As some states seek to increase regulation but also further protect and institutionalize medical marijuana, federal prosecutors are suddenly asserting themselves, authorizing raids and sending strongly worded letters that have cast new uncertainty on an issue that has long brimmed with tension between federal and state law. . . .
Letters so far have gone out to governors in Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington, prompting some states — including Rhode Island and Montana, in addition to Washington — to revise or back away from plans to make the medical marijuana industry more mainstream.
In Washington, Ms. Gregoire asked for guidance from the state’s two United States attorneys, Mike Ormsby and Jenny Durkan. In a reply to the governor last month, they said the federal government would prosecute “vigorously against individuals and organizations that participate in unlawful manufacturing and distribution activity involving marijuana, even if such activities are permitted under state law.”
The changes have angered supporters of medical marijuana, who say the federal government is sending mixed signals, even as they argue that it has not technically changed its position.
The Justice Department claims there has been no change in policy. Marijuana has remained illegal under federal law, and prosecutors have continued to pursue larger and more conspicuous dispensaries without much regard for state law, prompting increasing conflict with state officials. In the meantime, state level efforts to decriminalize medical marijuana continue apace. There’s now talk of a ballot initiative here in Ohio. So the federal state tension will continue.
Is there a better way? Yes, but it would be difficult to implement without legislation. Here’s what I suggested in 2009:
The Justice Department has to set prosecutorial priorities, as there are more federal crimes on the books than federal prosecutors can ever hope to prosecute. The aim should be to focus federal resources in those areas where there is a distinct federal interest, or where the federal government has a comparative advantage of state and local law enforcement. Where federal law conflicts with state law, prohibiting activities state laws allowed, federal efforts should still focus on those instances of alleged lawbreaking where there is a distinct federal interest, including spillover effects on neighboring jurisdictions.
The federal government has a legitimate interest in controlling interstate drug trafficking, but no particular interest in prosecuting those who seek to provide medical marijuana to local residents pursuant to state law. So it only makes sense for the Justice Department to tell federal prosecutors to focus their efforts on those who are not in compliance with state law, such as those who use medical marijuana distribution as a cover for other illegal activities, interstate drug trafficking in particular. California should be free to set its own marijuana policy, but the federal government retains an interest in preventing California’s choice from adversely affecting neighboring states.
Ideally, the federal government would treat marijuana like alcohol, retaining a federal role in controlling illegal interstate trafficking but leaving each state entirely free to set its own marijuana policy, whether it be prohibition, decriminalization, or somewhere in between.