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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

State Legalization of Recreational Marijuana: Selected Legal Issues

Todd Garvey
Legislative Attorney

Brian T. Yeh
Legislative Attorney

May a state authorize the use of marijuana for recreational purposes even if such use is forbidden by federal law? This novel and unresolved legal question has vexed judges, politicians, and legal scholars, and it has also generated considerable public debate among supporters and opponents of “legalizing” the recreational use of marijuana.

Under the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA), the cultivation, distribution, and possession of marijuana are prohibited for any reason other than to engage in federally approved research. Yet 18 states and the District of Columbia currently exempt qualified users of medicinal marijuana from penalties imposed under state law. In addition, Colorado and Washington recently became the first states to legalize, regulate, and tax small amounts of marijuana for nonmedicinal (so-called “recreational”) use by individuals over the age of 21. Thus, the current legal status of marijuana appears to be both contradictory and in a state of flux: as a matter of federal law, activities related to marijuana are generally prohibited and punishable by criminal penalties, whereas at the state level, certain marijuana usage is increasingly being permitted. Individuals and businesses engaging in marijuana-related activities that are authorized by state law nonetheless remain subject to federal criminal prosecution or other consequences under federal law.

The Colorado and Washington laws that legalize, regulate, and tax an activity the federal government expressly prohibits appear to be logically inconsistent with established federal policy toward marijuana, and are therefore likely subject to a legal challenge under the constitutional doctrine of preemption. This doctrine generally prevents states from enacting laws that are inconsistent with federal law. Under the Supremacy Clause, state laws that conflict with federal law are generally preempted and therefore void and without effect. Yet Congress intended that the CSA would not displace all state laws associated with controlled substances, as it wanted to preserve a role for the states in regulating controlled substances. States thus remain free to pass laws relating to marijuana, or any other controlled substance, so long as they do not create a “positive conflict” with federal law, such that the two laws “cannot consistently stand together.”

This report summarizes the Washington and Colorado marijuana legalization laws and evaluates whether, or the extent to which, they may be preempted by the CSA or by international agreements. It also highlights potential responses to these recent legalization initiatives by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and identifies other noncriminal consequences that marijuana users may face under federal law. Finally, the report closes with a description of legislative proposals introduced in the 113
th Congress relating to the treatment of marijuana under federal law, including H.R. 499 (Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2013); H.R. 501 (Marijuana Tax Equity Act of 2013); H.R. 689 (States’ Medical Marijuana Patient Protection Act); H.R. 710 (Truth in Trials Act); H.R. 784 (States’ Medical Marijuana Property Rights Protection Act); and H.R. 964 (Respect States’ and Citizens’ Rights Act of 2013).

Date of Report: April 5, 2013
Number of Pages: 32
Order Number: R43034
Price: $29.95

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