In our opinion: As some states flout federal drug law, Justice wavers on enforcement

Published: Saturday, March 29 2014 5:00 p.m. MDT

One of the U.S. Justice Department's top concerns in allowing Washington and Colorado to move forward with plans to legalize and tax marijuana sales is seeing that the states keep criminals out of the industry.

Elaine Thompson, Associated Press

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The wavering stance of the U.S. Justice Department on the sale and use of marijuana is beginning to cause more problems across the country. As a harmful substance, its sale and use remain illegal under federal law. Therefore, it ought to be treated as such by federal authorities.

For example, instead of acquiescing in the contravention of federal law by the states of Colorado and Washington, the Justice Department could sue to challenge those states’ efforts to recreationalize the use of marijuana.

Instead, the Obama administration has imposed a contradictory policy that seems both arbitrary and unclear. It certainly is not protecting the public.

The state of Washington is trying to establish a way to regulate its newly legal marijuana industry to make sure the people it licenses to sell the drug do not have criminal backgrounds. The Justice Department, however, refuses to conduct background checks in regards to federal violations. This makes sense, given how distasteful and inappropriate it would be for federal officials to sanction a violation of federal law that they are sworn to prosecute.

In Colorado, on the other hand, the Justice Department is conducting the tests and providing background information to the state.

The administration has yet to explain the inconsistency. It has issued only a terse statement indicating that it is reviewing its policies on background checks and will provide further guidance soon.

We urge its eventual policy to actually enforce federal law, and to begin to send the message that states should not flout federal law and accept this harmful drug as legal. Unfortunately, the administration seems to be confused as to how to act.

There is no question the landscape of social acceptance is changing. Marijuana is moving from the fringes of society to something more corporate and buttoned-down. The industry now has a lobbying presence in Washington. This is likely to continue to lead to an increase in the use of the drug.

A recent story in the Denver Post reported on how three prominent people who were working at the state agency charged with regulating marijuana now have switched sides to become consultants for marijuana sellers. The illegal drug industry apparently pays better than government work.

In Colorado, lawmakers must wait two years after leaving office before becoming lobbyists. Employees in the Department of Revenue’s lottery division have to wait at least a year after leaving before working for that industry. These pauses keep regulators from being enticed to provide preferential treatment in exchange for lucrative employment. Colorado accepted marijuana without apparently thinking through all the consequences.

Banks are largely refusing to provide financial services to the marijuana industry. Unless and until Congress changes the law with regard to the sale and use of marijuana, the Obama administration should not abandon enforcement of the laws, including drug laws. It is entirely appropriate for Washington to continue controlling the growth and sale of a harmful substance that negatively impacts the welfare of Americans.

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