SEATTLE -- A group of lawmakers on Friday urged the Justice Department to respect recent votes in Colorado and Washington allowing the recreational use of marijuana, and some introduced a bill to ensure that happens.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado said her bill would bar the federal government from blocking state marijuana laws. Several other lawmakers have signed on, including Republican Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado.
"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," Coffman said in a statement. "I feel obligated to support this legislation."
Voters this month made Washington and Colorado the first states to allow adults 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of marijuana, and to set up state licensing schemes for pot growers, processors and retail stores. Taxes could bring the states tens or hundreds of millions of dollars a year, financial analysts say.
But marijuana remains illegal under federal law. States are not required to enforce the federal prohibition, meaning they can make marijuana crimes legal under state law, but whether they can set up licensing schemes to promote violations of federal law is another story.
Many constitutional lawyers don't think so: In general, state laws that "frustrate the purpose" of federal laws can be blocked.
But the DOJ hasn't said whether it plans to sue to block the licensing schemes from taking effect. Seventeen Democratic representatives signed a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and Drug Enforcement Administration Administrator Michele Leonhart urging the DOJ to let the states proceed with regulating pot and to refrain from prosecuting people who comply with the state laws.
"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," the letter said. "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."
Proponents of the marijuana measures welcomed the letter and DeGette's legislation, which would amend the Controlled Substances Act to clarify that it shall not pre-empt state marijuana laws.
"It's fantastic to see congressional representatives move decisively to respect the will of the voters and facilitate the fundamental reformation of our marijuana laws at the state level," said Alison Holcomb, campaign manager for Washington's Initiative 502.
So far, no Washington lawmakers have signed on to DeGette's legislation.