Avoiding a Collision

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), August 31, 2013 | Go to article overview
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Avoiding a Collision


Byline: The Register-Guard

Federal and state marijuana laws have been on a collision course for years. The U.S. Department of Justice has found a way to avoid a train wreck, at least for now, by keeping state and federal drug enforcement efforts on separate tracks. But the conflict continues to sharpen and will need to be addressed, the sooner the better, by amending the federal Controlled Substances Act.

The Controlled Substances Act is a hard-line, no-exceptions law that places marijuana in the same category as heroin and LSD, drugs with no legitimate use. California opened the gap between state and federal law in 1996 when it approved the use of marijuana for medical purposes. Since then medical marijuana laws have spread to the District of Columbia and 18 states, including Oregon in 1998. Voters in Colorado and Washington state escalated the conflict last year by approving laws legalizing recreational marijuana use.

Federal law trumps these state laws - federal agents could arrest Oregonians with medical marijuana cards or recreational pot-smokers in Washington, and the charges would stick. But the Justice Department, under Republican and Democratic administrations, has chosen to stay out of the business of pursuing small-time violations of the Controlled Substances Act. The question posed by Washington and Colorado, and by increasingly permissive medical marijuana rules elsewhere, is how far states can go before the federal government feels an obligation to order a halt.

In a memo sent Wednesday to U.S. attorneys nationwide, Deputy Attorney General James Cole deftly dodged that question. The memo spells out eight federal priorities in the field of marijuana law enforcement. As long as state rules for medical and recreational marijuana are consistent with those priorities, Cole wrote, the Justice Department will stick to its long-standing practice of pursuing only high-volume drug crimes.

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