Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Further ponderings: legalisation of recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington

One of my posts from a few days ago was in relation to the recent passing of two key amendments in Colorado and Washington, in relation to recreational marijuana use. At the time, I noted that I was curious to see the implications of the passing of these amendments, and the potential problem this may pose to Federal authorities in the United States. 

The reason that this may be problematic for Federal authorities is that since marijuana is classified as a Schedule 1 drug in the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, it is illegal to possess, use, buy, sell, and/or cultivate marijuana. This stance, combined with failed attempts at rescheduling marijuana, does put Washington and Colorado at odds with the Federal government, and puts lawmakers in these two states into a tricky situation until the ramifications of these votes develop.

Map of current United States cannabis laws
Light Green: State with legal medical cannabis
Olive Green: State with decriminalized cannabis possession laws
Dark Green: State with both medical and decriminalization laws
Purple: State with legalized cannabis
(Map courtesy of Wikipedia)

It was brought to my attention that in March of 2009, Eric H. Holder Jr, current Attorney General of the United States, indicated that the Justice Department has no intentions to prosecute medical marijuana dispensaries in California and other states. In this regard, use of medical marijuana may seem to be on a sure footing in Colorado, Washington, and in any other states that have passed laws pertaining to this matter. What is not sure sure is whether this "tolerance" of the Justice Department and U.S. Government will extent to recent attempts to legalise the recreational use of cannabis. 

Indeed, this concept was the focus of an article by professor and former Federal prosecutor Mark Olser, published on the CNN website. Professor Olser expresses his view in a rather succinct, and perhaps even poetic, manner: 

"The residents of Colorado and Washington state have voted to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, and all hell is about to break loose -- at least ideologically"

Without delving into the conflict between State's rights and appeals from ethics and morality within an ideologically diverse nation such as the United States, it will be curious to see the broader implications of this vote. Already, four leaders from Latin American countries (Mexico, Belize, Honduras and Costa Rica) have claimed that the votes in Washington and Colorado state will have significant implications for current attempts to halt drug smuggling. Indeed, these votes may also even affect the stance of these nations with regards to the current War on Drugs.

Perhaps one of the more concerning news stories to come out in the days following the Colorado and Washington votes, and in relation to the Federal stance on possession and cultivation of marijuana, is the case against Chris Williams. Following the move by the state of Montana to legalise medical marijuana, Williams opened a marijuana grow-house. Due to Federal laws surrounding the cultivation of marijuana, as set out by the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, Williams faces a mandatory minimum jail sentence of 80 years. 

Though I would generally not desire to second-guess the Justice Department of the United States, this seems to be outrageously draconian. Though it is true that Williams turned down various plea bargains offered by the Justice Department, to me it seems that the application of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 seems outdated, doubly so when contrasted with two states explicitly legalising cannabis for recreational purposes. Perhaps it is time the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and other parties consider whether this act represents a legal anachronism in light of recent events and the comments of Attorney General Holder back in 2009.

As an aside, the issues of medical and recreational marijuana use in relation to the United States reminds me of one of my lecturers from undergraduate days. During our discussion of drug law in relation to the seeming aversion some countries and jurisdictions have towards harm minimisation, he vehemently declared that the current stance is "schizophrenic". No doubt that these are strong words, though perhaps not surprising when one reads of draconian sentences for actions that are ostensibly legal from an individual's position within a State's legislature. 

Until next time,
Nathan

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