In a sign of the massive progress legalization has made over the last decade, the Obama administration urged the Supreme Court in December to dismiss a lawsuit that threatens legal marijuana in Colorado.
In a court brief filed Dec. 16, Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr., who represents the federal government before the court, argued that the justices lack jurisdiction to hear the cannabis lawsuit, filed by officials in Nebraska and Oklahoma.
Those two states are seeking to nullify legalization in Colorado by claiming that huge amounts of cannabis are pouring across their state lines. If successful, they could force every pot shop in Colorado to close.
Nebraska, Oklahoma attempting to end Colorado sale of marijuana
The suit doesn’t have much of a chance in the courts. The justices are extremely unlikely to allow one state to dictate the legal policies of its neighbors, even in drug law. But it gives marijuana opponents another means to slow and harass advocates.
The Supreme Court asked last year that the administration provide its opinion on the suit as they decide whether to review it.
“Entering the type of dispute at issue here – essentially that one state’s laws make it more likely that third parties will violate federal and state law in another state – would represent a substantial and unwarranted expansion of this Court’s” jurisdictions, Verrilli said.
What’s more, he said, the court lacks “original jurisdiction” to decide the case before lower courts hear it. In other words, Nebraska and Oklahoma should have filed it in a U.S. district court rather than asking for immediate Supreme Court review.
Challenging Colorado’s legal cannabis market
The lawsuit technically doesn’t challenge legalization. Rather it takes issue with the way Colorado regulates its legal cannabis market. Those methods, the neighboring states argue, have allowed massive amounts of the drug to cross state lines. Reform proponents adamantly dispute that contention.
But if the plaintiffs prevail, they could force the effective end of the legal industry. Adults could still grow and possess marijuana in small amounts, but they couldn’t legally buy it or sell it.
In the suit, lawyers for the two neighboring states say police in those places are increasingly stopping drivers who have cannabis they bought legally in Colorado. Federal law, they say, preempts state law and creates “a comprehensive regime to combat the international and interstate traffic in illicit drugs.”
Little substance to the claims
They don’t state how much cannabis law enforcement is finding, or the frequency of busts, so it’s hard to know if there’s any truth to their claim. But pro-pot activists and other observers say it’s overblown.
The intervention by lawyers for the government is a hopeful moment, as the administration actually defended the rights of marijuana users before the highest court in the land. It marks another in a growing list of moves to support state-level legalization.
Starting six years ago, Obama made it official policy to instruct certain U.S. attorneys not to pursue cannabis providers who are in “unambiguous compliance with existing state laws.” At least one prosecutor defied those instructions, but she has since left her job.