By Sarah Guy, Manager, Legislative and Media Affairs, IACP
n August 29, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) would not challenge policies in Colorado or Washington that legalize the sale and recreational use of marijuana in contravention of federal law.
In response to this decision, the IACP, along with a large coalition of law enforcement leadership associations, sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, expressing our extreme disappointment with the decision of the DOJ to not challenge the marijuana legalization laws in Washington and Colorado.
The letter made clear the law enforcement community’s profound concern over the decision and its impact on our communities and the safety of the citizens we serve. The decision ignores the connections between marijuana use and violent crime, the potential trafficking problems that could be created across state and local boundaries as a result of legalization, and the potential economic and social costs that could be incurred.
In addition, the letter also strongly criticized the department for failing to consult with state, tribal, and local law enforcement organizations prior to reaching this decision. As you know, the IACP has been very vocal in its opposition to these (and similar) laws and has expressed its disappointment in the DOJ’s decision.
Upon receipt of the letter and phone calls from IACP leadership, the attorney general called a meeting with the IACP and the coalition of law enforcement leadership organizations. Attorney General Holder expressed regret for the lack of communication and consultation between DOJ and the state, local, and tribal law enforcement community on this issue. He reaffirmed the department’s commitment to carefully monitor developments in Colorado and Washington and the DOJ’s intention to continue to enforce the Controlled Substances Act in those states in accordance to the eight federal priority areas they identified.
The eight priorities, in which federal prosecutors can and will still prosecute individuals or entities include: distribution of marijuana to minors; when profits from the sale of marijuana are flowing to criminal enterprises, gangs, and cartels; when marijuana is being diverted to other states; when state-authorized marijuana activity is being used as a cover for the trafficking of other illegal drugs or activity; when violence and the use of firearms is involved; when drugged driving and the exacerbation of other adverse public health consequences associated with marijuana use take place; when marijuana is being grown on public lands; and when marijuana possession or use takes place on federal property.
The data gathered from Colorado clearly demonstrate the consequences of a relaxed marijuana policy.
In fact, in Colorado fatalities involving drivers testing positive for marijuana increased 114 percent between 2006 and 2011. Youth admissions into emergency rooms for marijuana-related incidents have also increased in Colorado. From 2005-2008, the national average for ER admissions for marijuana-related incidents was 18 percent, while in Colorado it was 25 percent. From 2009-2011, the national average increased to 19.6 percent, while in Colorado it rose to 28 percent. Additionally, the Department of Health and Human Services issued a report showing that for drug-related emergency room visits among youth aged 12-17 the leading drug involved in the incident was marijuana. Officials have also documented major increases in exports of marijuana from Colorado to other states between 2010 and 2012.
The conclusion can easily be drawn from these facts. Relaxing marijuana policies lead to clear and foreseeable negative consequences for communities and families.
Congress is also looking into this issue. On September 10, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on Conflicts between State and Federal Marijuana Laws. The hearing was chaired by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and attended by Senators Charles Grassley (R-IA), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT).
Witnesses included Deputy Attorney General James Cole; Sheriff John Urquhart, King County Sheriff's Office, Seattle, Washington; Jack Finlaw, Chief Legal Counsel to the Office of Governor John W. Hickenlooper, Denver, Colorado; Kevin Sabet, Co-founder and Director, Project SAM, and Director, Drug Policy Institute, University of Florida.
All three members of the majority, former prosecutors representing states that have legalized medical marijuana, agreed with the DOJ’s recent decision to not challenge the marijuana legalization laws in Colorado and Washington, unless any of the eight federal interests were at stake. The sentiment expressed by the majority was that DOJ also needed to address issues of concern such as banking and taxation.
Senator Grassley, the committee’s ranking member, was the only one who disagreed with the DOJ’s decision and their failure to seek preemption. He expressed his concerns that it will create a big marijuana industry and be detrimental to public health. Grassley called Colorado and Washington “the first jurisdictions in the world to legalize the cultivation, trafficking, sale and recreational use of marijuana.” He went on to add, “prosecutorial discretion is one thing, but giving the green light to an entire industry predicated on breaking federal law is quite another. ”1
Grassley went on to discuss the increased number of drugged driving incidents, further exposing youth to marijuana, and the trickle-down effect into other states.
Throughout his testimony, Deputy Attorney General (DAG) James Cole defended their decision. He also agreed that DOJ needed to address the banking issue and informed the committee that DOJ is communicating with the Department of the Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) on this issue.
Sheriff John Urquhart and Jack Finlaw, also proponents of DOJ’s decision, defended their states’ marijuana legalization laws and requested that the federal government allow banks and financial institutions to work with legitimate marijuana businesses who are licensed under state law.
Kevin Sabet stated that he and dozens of prevention, treatment, medical, and scientific groups around the United States found the guidance by the Department of Justice to be disturbing on both legal and policy grounds. “The guidance, which expressly defers the Department of Justice's … right to challenge and preempt laws legalizing marijuana, contradicts both the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) and policy principles designed to protect public health and safety,” said Kevin Sabet.2
Kevin Sabet spoke specifically about Colorado as an example and the effects of legalizing marijuana as medicine. “Anyone who has been to Colorado since 2009 can get a sense of what full legalization looks like already. Mass advertising, promotion, using items that are attractive to kids—like medical marijuana lollipops, Ring Pots, Pot-Tarts, etc.—are all characteristics of current policy,” stated Sabet.3 “The marijuana industry does not make money off of the person who decides once every 10 years to light up a joint. The industries—alcohol and tobacco are included—make money off of addiction.”4
Overall, the hearing was disappointing. Despite the testimony given by Kevin Sabet and Senator Grassley’s support the sentiment of the committee was made clear. IACP anticipates that this was the first of many hearings to come on this issue.
You can be assured that IACP will continue to monitor and interact with a number of elements on this issue. IACP plans to continue outreach to the administration and to Congress. IACP will be working closely with the House Judiciary Committee to ensure that the impacts of marijuana legalization on public safety and the ability of state and local law enforcement to continue to effectively protect the public and ensure its safety are conveyed.
IACP is also working to identify health and treatment organizations to join in on the efforts and to speak directly about the health consequences of DOJ’s decision.
IACP efforts cannot stop there. IACP leadership will be calling on the membership and members of the various committees to help in this fight. Your congressional delegation needs to hear directly from you. IACP must get vocal about this issue. DOJ’s turning a blind eye to the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington is only the beginning. Other states will follow, and IACP expects an even greater push to get marijuana removed from the Controlled Substances Act will follow. ♦
1Chuck Grassley, hearing before the Committee on the Judiciary on “Conflicts between State and Federal Marijuana Laws,” September 10, 2013, available from River Cities Reader, http://www.rcreader.com/news-releases/conflicts-between-state-and-federal-marijuana-laws (accessed September 13, 2013).
2Kevin A. Sabet, written testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, “Conflict Between State and Federal Laws,” September 10, 2013, (accessed September 13, 2013).
4Kevin A. Sabet, Q&A before the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, “Conflict between State and Federal Laws,” September 10, 2013, webcast, http://www.judiciary.senate.gov/hearings/hearing.cfm?id=094c28995d1f5bc4fe11d832f90218f9 (accessed September 13, 2013).
Please cite as:
Sarah Guy, "IACP Efforts to Combat Legalization of Marijuana Continue," Legislative Alert, The Police Chief 80 (October 2013): 8–9.