Coffman backs move to force feds to respect states’ rights on marijuana

Colorado U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette introduced legislation today that would exempt states from federal laws banning the sale, possession and use of small amounts of marijuana by adults. The bill so far is being co-sponsored by Colorado Democrat Jared Polis and Republican Mike Coffman as well as a number of other representatives from around the country.

The bill is known as the Respect States’ and Citizens’ Rights Act.

It would spell out that any state that passes its own laws governing marijuana and/or medical marijuana would be exempt from certain sections of the Controlled Substances Act.

Colorado and Washington voters last week passed measures that legalize limited possession of marijuana and also legalize retail sales of marijuana. Voters in both states gave marijuana 10-point majorities.

In Colorado, the governor, the attorney general and both U.S. senators say they need guidance from the federal government before deciding how to proceed on implementation of the law.

Four of the state’s seven U.S. representatives have decided not to wait for guidance, but instead to offer some guidance of their own.

Polis, CD2, and Cofffman, CD6, are already backing the effort as cosponsors of DeGette’s bill, and a spokesperson for Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-CD7, said he is weighing the bill against similar options.

“He certainly isn’t opposed to the bill,” said Leslie Oliver. She noted that he signed the Polis letter (below) and wants to see what kind of reaction that gets before deciding on his next step.

“I am glad to see our elected officials, from the local and state levels up to the federal level, taking steps to respect the will of the voters,” said Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol co-director Mason Tvert.

“I’m proud of the way our bipartisan congressional delegation has come together to back the will of voters,” said Republican attorney and marijuana reform advocate Rob Corry.

“I hope this bill gets through the House and Senate quickly and gets signed by the president,” Corry said.

Polis, DeGette and Rep. Ed Perlmutter also sent a letter to officials today asking the federal government not to interfere in states that legalize marijuana.

“Today I am proud to join with colleagues from both sides of the aisle on the ‘Respect States’ and Citizens’ Rights Act’ to protect states’ rights and immediately resolve any conflict with the federal government,” said Rep. DeGette in a press release. “In Colorado we’ve witnessed the aggressive policies of the federal government in their treatment of legal medicinal marijuana providers. My constituents have spoken and I don’t want the federal government denying money to Colorado or taking other punitive steps that would undermine the will of our citizens.”

Coffman said in the release that while he opposed the legalization of marijuana, he feels an obligation to support the will of voters, who in his district supported the measure.

“I voted against Amendment 64 and I strongly oppose the legalization of marijuana, but I also have an obligation to respect the will of the voters, given the passage of this initiative, and so I feel obligated to support this legislation,” he said in the release.

“Residents of Colorado and Washington have made it clear that the public is ahead of the federal government in terms of marijuana legalization,” said Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer in the release issued by DeGette. “It’s time for Congress to pass legislation – such as the ‘Respect States’ and Citizens’ Rights Act’ – that allows states to implement their own laws in this area without fear of federal interference.”

Oregon voters shot down a measure that would have legalized marijuana in that state.

More from DeGette’s press release:

“The federal government’s failure to develop a reasonable approach towards the varying state marijuana use laws has made this legislation necessary,” said Rep. Sam Farr (CA-17). “From increased raids on legal dispensaries to denying defendants in court the right to present evidence of their legal marijuana use, the federal government has chosen to trample on state rights rather than work with them as a partner to address this issue.”

Polis today sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and Drug Enforcement Administration Administrator Michele Leonhart asking that they take no action against people whose activities related to marijuana are in compliance with state law.

In addition to Polis, the letter was signed by: Steve Cohen, D-TN; DeGette, Ed Perlmutter D-CD-7; Barney Frank D-MA; Earl Blumenauer,D-OR; Jerrold Nadler, D-NY; Jan Schakowsky, D-IL; Sam Farr, D-CA; Jim Moran, D-VA; Chellie Pingree, D-ME; Adam Smith, D-WA; Barbara Lee, D-CA; Dennis Kucinich, D-OH; Raúl Grijalva, D-AZ; Robert C. Scott, D-VA; and John Conyers, D-MI.

The full text of the letter is here:

Dear Attorney General Holder and Administrator Leonhart:

We are writing to urge federal law enforcement to consider carefully the recent decisions by the people of Colorado and Washington to legalize small amounts of marijuana for personal use by adults. Under the new laws, each state will establish a comprehensive regulatory scheme governing the production, sale and personal use of marijuana. We believe that it would be a mistake for the federal government to focus enforcement action on individuals whose actions are in compliance with state law.

We are concerned that the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) continue to threaten individuals and businesses acting within the scope of their states’ laws on the medicinal use of marijuana despite formal guidance on exercising prosecutorial discretion. These actions contradict assurances made by DOJ in 2009 that the Department would not prioritize criminal charges against those who act in compliance with state law. It is also a poor use of limited federal resources. We hope your agencies will not take a similar approach with regard to individuals and businesses who comply with Colorado’s and Washington’s new laws, each of which were approved with overwhelming public support.

As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once observed, states are the laboratories of democracy. The people of Colorado and Washington have decided that marijuana ought to be regulated much like alcohol, with strong and efficient regulation of production, retail sales, and distribution, coupled with strict laws against underage use and driving while intoxicated. The voters chose to eliminate the illegal marijuana market controlled by cartels and criminals and recognized the disproportionate impact that marijuana prohibition has on minorities. These states have chosen to move from a drug policy that spends millions of dollars turning ordinary Americans into criminals toward one that will tightly regulate the use of marijuana while raising tax revenue to support cash-strapped state and local governments. We believe this approach embraces the goals of existing federal marijuana law: to stop international trafficking, deter domestic organized criminal organizations, stop violence associated with the drug trade and protect children.

While we recognize that other states have chosen a different path, and further understand that the federal government has an important role to play in protecting against interstate shipments of marijuana leaving Colorado or Washington, we ask that your Departments take no enforcement action against anyone who acts in compliance with the laws of Colorado, Washington and any other states that choose to regulate access to marijuana for medicinal or personal use. The voters of these states chose, by a substantial margin, to forge a new and effective policy with respect to marijuana. The tide of public opinion is changing, both at the ballot box and in state legislatures across the country. We believe that the collective judgment of voters and state lawmakers must be respected. Thank you for your attention to this important matter.

Mike Saccone, spokesperson for Senator Mark Udall, said Udall would not be immediately sponsoring any Senate legislation similar to DeGette’s, but instead was “studying the issue” and “waiting to see how the Department of Justice responds” to a letter sent by Gov. John Hickenlooper and Attorney General John Suthers.

Adam Bozzi, spokesperson for Sen. Michael Bennet, expressed similar sentiments via email:

“Right now, Senator Bennet is waiting to see the results of the conversations between the state of Colorado and the Justice Department. As you know the governor and attorney general have requested guidance from DOJ about how the Justice Department will respond to Colorado’s marijuana vote.”

Corry noted that the feds have thus far been silent on Colorado’s Amendment 64.

“Silence really does equal consent,” he said. “I think President Obama really does want to be a transformational figure and lead on this. It is very exciting,” Corry said.

Scot Kersgaard has been managing editor of a political newspaper, editor and co-owner of a ski town newspaper, executive editor of eight high-tech magazines (where he worked with current Apple CEO Tim Cook), deputy press secretary to a U.S. Senator, and an outdoors columnist at the Rocky Mountain News. He has an English degree from the University of Washington. He was awarded a fellowship to study internet journalism at the University of Maryland's Knight Center for Specialized Journalism. He was student body president in college. He spends his free time hiking and skiing.