US Senate hearing seeks path for Feds to coexist with state-legal marijuana

By Betty Aldworth and Darby Beck

WCL News – Deputy US Attorney General James Cole told a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on September 10, 2013 that in states where marijuana has been decriminalized or made legal, implementing a strictly regulated system in which cannabis is sold is the only way to prevent criminal activity such as diversion to youth and across state lines and empowerment of criminals and cartels. Cole did not challenge states’ rights to make their own drug laws, only restated the federal government’s right to challenge their regulatory schemes in pursuing certain priorities, such as preventing sales to minors, trafficking to other states, impaired driving, and increases in violence.

Committee members Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) were fully supportive of the new state laws and repeatedly stated the need for greater clarification of federal policy, particularly in relation to guidelines which prohibit financial institutions, security services, landlords and others from doing business with marijuana providers. They and Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) expressed concern that federal regulators’ actions to block state-legal business access to simple banking and financial services inevitably undermines the viability of the industries. Witnesses King County (Washington State) Sheriff John Urquhart and Colorado Governor’s Chief Legal Counsel Jack Finlaw testified to the same problem.

Drug War critics were glad that the hearings occurred but remain wary of the Obama Administration’s history of shifting its stance on legal use of cannabis. “While I would have liked to have seen a substantive change in policy, what we were really listening to in that hearing was the sound of a changing political climate,” said retired Seattle police chief and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition speaker Norm Stamper. “People who can’t agree on any other political issue are coming together over this one, and politicians on both sides of the aisle ignore that at their own peril.”

When Whitehouse brought up the federal government’s conflicting instructions on marijuana enforcement in the past, Cole merely affirmed the government’s right to intervene on a case-by-case basis.

The hearing drew attention to a growing consensus among legal cannabis regulators, law enforcement officials, and business professionals that allowing access to banking services is now the most pressing obstacle to the success of the regulated marijuana industry in the states where it is legal for medical or adult use and ensuring the eight federal enforcement priorities outlined in an August 29, 2013 Department of Justice memo can be upheld.

“We need to address the [banking situation] and we are working on it,” said Cole, who indicated the DOJ is conferring with the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Division to resolve the issue. He said that they were working to establish regulations for financial institutions, landlords would be protected, and iterated that the DEA had merely asked questions of armed car and other security services, and had not issued an injunction forbidding them from working with marijuana businesses.

National Cannabis Industry Association Director Aaron Smith expressed relief that DOJ is “is finally taking seriously the dangers that a lack of access to simple banking services poses to consumers, employees and business owners. We are encouraged that the growing consensus among essentially all stakeholders is that banking access must be available to legal businesses. It portends a quick reform to this dangerous and unnecessary situation.”

“It feels like there’s a paradigm shift underway in the Justice Department’s interpretation of federal drug control law,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.  “They seem to recognize that drug control should be first and foremost about protecting public health and safety, and that smart statewide regulatory systems of the sort that Colorado and Washington are proposing may advance those objectives better than knee-jerk enforcement of federal prohibitions.”

Nadelmann pointed out that Senator John McCain (R-AZ) recently made headlines when he said, “Maybe we should legalize [marijuana]. We’re certainly moving that way as far as marijuana is concerned. I respect the will of the people.” Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has said the federal government “ought to respect” states that legalize and regulate marijuana. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) has suggested decriminalizing all drug users, including marijuana users.

Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, added that “We applaud Sen. Leahy and the committee for initiating a much-needed dialogue about our nation’s failed marijuana prohibition laws. We hope this discussion will inspire Congress to take action and make the Department of Justice policy the law of the land. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) has introduced legislation that would leave marijuana policy up to the states, and we call on members of the committee to consider similar legislation.

“Marijuana is an objectively less harmful substance than alcohol, and most Americans do not believe adults should be punished for using it,” Riffle noted. “Voters and state legislators are poised to approve laws similar to those adopted in Colorado and Washington. The administration is doing its best to work around federal law, but a better approach would be to simply fix federal law and permanently resolve this conflict.”— West Coast Leaf News Service

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