It has been two weeks since the voters in Colorado and Washington State chose to legalize marijuana, yet there still hasn’t been any solid response from the Obama administration. How the federal government will deal with the conflict between state and federal laws on marijuana remains the big unanswered question.
Given this void of solid information, one can only speculate. But it seem likely that the federal government’s behavior toward medical marijuana could serve as an example for how it will deal with the legalization of recreational marijuana.
Under federal law marijuana is still classified as a Schedule I substance, meaning that it has “no currently accepted medical use in the United States.” The federal government does not believe there is such as thing as “medical marijuana.” That is why even in the 18 states that have legalized medical marijuana the federal government still considers it illegal. What this means is that on a legal level the federal/state conflict that will be created by the new marijuana legalization initiatives is basically no different than the ongoing federal/state conflict over medical marijuana.
What we do know from our decades of experience with medical marijuana is that the federal government has neither the resources, the desire nor the ability to go after regular users. We can safely assume that in Colorado and Washington State the federal government will not be arresting adults for having or using small amounts of marijuana. The personal possession parts of both laws are secure.
When it comes to the production and retail sale of medical marijuana, however, the federal government has been cryptically inconsistent in the past few years. They have raided and tried to shut down many dispensaries. The primary target seems to be the largest dispensaries and those in states with looser regulations, but that is not always the case. Federal agencies have also made it difficult for all dispensaries to operate as businesses by doing things like cutting off the use of credit cards and access to banking.
That said, there are still thousand of dispensaries operating in multiple states. The federal government has impeded and harassed the medical marijuana industry but clearly hasn’t eliminated it.
In the short- to medium-term a very similar response to the recently approved marijuana legalization initiatives seems the most likely of several possible outcomes. The federal government will harass and delay a legal marijuana retail system, but won’t completely stop one from existing. Of course we won’t know for sure until the rubber really meets the road when the states begin implementation.
Photo by Dank Depot under Creative Commons license