Nearly 10 months after Colorado and Washington state legalized the use and sale of recreational marijuana, Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy announced Monday that he's invited Attorney General Eric Holder and Deputy Attorney General James Cole to testify at a September 10 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. Specifically, Leahy wants Holder and Cole to answer questions about "whether it is the best use of federal resources to prosecute the personal or medicinal use of marijuana in states that have made such consumption legal."
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We actually already know the answer to that question. The Justice Department in modern times has not gone after users of medical marijuana, but it does go after sellers and growers of the drug. As for recreational users: President Obama told Barbara Walters in late 2012 that his administration has "bigger fish to fry"; last week, a spokesman for the president reiterated that viewpoint when he said that only traffickers were a priority (a claim belied by the number of seemingly pointless federal raids on nonviolent medical marijuana businesses.)
So, if we already know whether the Justice Department is going to "prosecute the personal or medicinal use of marijuana in states that have made such consumption legal" (it won't), what exactly will Leahy's hearing be about?
Marijuana activists hope it'll be about the federal war on state-legal marijuana businesses.
"The real question is whether the president intends to let states implement voter-approved regulations to tax and control marijuana sales, or if he wants to intervene and force individual users to keep buying marijuana on the black market, where much of the profit goes to violent drug cartels and gangs," Tom Angell, head of Marijuana Majority, writes in an email.
Since before Obama became president, the DOJ has done everything in its power to make running an above-board state-legal pot business impossible. Federal SWAT raids on such businesses date back to President George W. Bush's first term. In 2011, the Justice Department started discouraging banks from taking on medical marijuana businesses as clients, which forced dispensaries to go cash-only (a lot of them were already cash-only to avoid having their accounts frozen by the feds). Then earlier this month, the Drug Enforcement Administration told armored car companies to stop transporting the revenues of state-legal medical marijuana companies. Throughout out all this, the IRS has targeted pot businesses and the Justice Department has hassled landlords who rent to dispensaries.
Dan Riffle, legislative director of the Marijuana Policy Project, believes the senator from Vermont will ask the right questions. "Leahy has said he recognizes the will of the people and their right to make this decision and he wants those states to be able to fully and effectively implement their laws," Riffle told me in an email. "Based on the conversations I've had, the focus will be on hurdles to effective implementation like access to banking."