The Department of Justice is continuing to tolerate the use of marijuana for medical purposes, even if state-level attempts to make the drug legitimate collide with federal law, which makes marijuana illegal and trumps state law, Deputy Attorney General James Cole says.
“Our focus is really on keeping it away from children,” Cole told Steve Kroft of “60 Minutes” on CBS on Sunday. “Our focus is keeping it out of the hands of organized crime. Our focus is making sure that people aren’t, through marijuana dispensaries, using it as a pretext to do large-scale interstate drug dealing. These are the areas where we’re really trying to focus.”
“Each case is going to rise and fall on its own unique facts,” Cole said. “Any of that is still in violation of the Controlled Substances Act of the federal law. We’re not interested in bothering people who are sick and are using it in the recommendation of a doctor. We are concerned with people who are using it as a pretext to become large-scale drug dealers.”
As the “60 Minutes” report noted, voters in Colorado, Washington State and Oregon are to decide on Nov. 6 whether to “legalize” and tax marijuana sales. In this context, the verb “legalize” almost demands to be enclosed in quotation marks, since federal law supersedes state law, and it is not within the power of a state’s people to simply cancel a federal law they don’t like. (This assumes that the federal law in question is based on the powers of Congress as spelled out in the Constitution.)
But, as Boulder County District Attorney Stan Garnett told Kroft, getting people to obey a law is not so simple. “What we deal with is what prosecutors call ‘jury nullification,’ where juries say, ‘I know what the law is, but I’m not going to follow it,’” Garnett said. “This community has made it very clear that criminal enforcement of marijuana is not something they want me to spend any time on.”
The DOJ would seem to have plenty to prosecute — Medicare and Medicaid fraud, tax-evasion schemes, terrorism — without going after low-level marijuana business. In a larger sense, the federal authorities’ stance on marijuana reflects the kind of prioritizing that goes on at every level of law enforcement, as officials choose which laws really need enforcing and which can be treated with less urgency.
Kroft’s report included a tour of a marijuana dispensary that had the flavor, as it were, of a chocolate shop or ice cream parlor, suggesting that the people of Colorado (and Oregon and Washington State?) will soon add to the number of states, now 17, in which marijuana can be used, at least for medical purposes — that is, approved by the state and more or less winked at by federal authorities.
Marijuana devotees have long argued that cannabis is no more dangerous than, say, gin or whiskey. (Come to think of it, the latter substances can be pretty dangerous, especially when used to excess.) In any event, there are sure to be more debates, in court and out, as to whether marijuana ought to be considered as dangerous as heroin, cocaine and other dangerous drugs.
Meanwhile, Professor Sam Kamin of the University of Denver Law School, who has followed the marijuana controversy, said the present situation is intolerable. “Either we have to have settled expectations that this is a federal crime, the federal government’s not going to tolerate it, or the federal government is going to let states like Colorado regulate it, tax it, experiment with it,” Kamin told Kroft. “To have it exist in both worlds simultaneously is unsustainable. We can’t have a multimillion dollar industry built on criminal conduct.”
A smart-aleck might observe that once upon a time America did have a multimillion dollar industry built on criminal conduct. Prohibition made some bootleggers rich. It also made some dead. But at least it inspired some good movies.