Hi. Professor Albert here for this week’s edition of THELAW.TV’s 2-Minute Law School. This week, we’re going to visit state versus federal law … and its impact on the recent legalization of recreational marijuana use in two states.
Massachusetts recently became the eighteenth state in the U.S. to permit the use of medical marijuana. Patients diagnosed with a debilitating medical condition, such as cancer or Parkinson’s, will be able to possess up to a 60-day supply of marijuana for personal medical use … if they get written certification from a doctor.
While medical marijuana laws are becoming more widespread, it was successful voter referendums in Colorado and Washington State that turned the whole marijuana debate on its head. Voters in those two states made it legal to for adults twenty-one and over to smoke pot recreationally, without any prescription or medical excuse. Both laws take effect before the end of the year. That’s very little time for federal officials to sort out the complex legal issues surrounding marijuana use and possession. So, if you live in those states, can you legally light up?
Technically, marijuana use for either medical or recreational purposes is not legal in anywhere in the United States. The Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution says that states must follow federal law when a conflict arises between federal law and either the state constitution or state law. Guidance from the U.S. Department of Justice explicitly states that marijuana remains illegal under Federal law. Enforcing Federal law against significant traffickers in illegal drugs, including marijuana, remains a important Department of Justice priority.
Regardless of state laws to the contrary, there’s no such thing as medical marijuana under Federal law. Marijuana continues to be a Schedule One substance … meaning that it has no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. It’s important to recognize that state marijuana laws do not change the fact that using marijuana continues to be an offense under Federal law. Nor do these state laws change the criteria or process for approval of safe and effective medications, including marijuana. Federal law usually wins these battles.
However, the D.O.J. guidelines explain that it’s not an efficient use of federal resources to focus enforcement efforts on individuals with serious illnesses who use marijuana as part of a recommended treatment regimen that’s consistent with applicable state law. But, people who are in the business of cultivating, selling, or distributing marijuana, and those who knowingly facilitate such activities, are in violation of Federal law, and are subject to Federal enforcement action, including potential prosecution … even in states with these laws on the books.
This all may be confusing. And it is. The courts have been filled with states rights cases since the founding of our country. Marijuana laws are only the latest front in this continuing push-pull between the states and Washington. There may be on-going confusion for years to come … with people being arrested and prosecuted for activities that on paper are legal in their states. Eventually, as more states join these two trailblazers, and as officials learn more about the effects of marijuana on society, the smoke should clear and marijuana smokers will have clarity.
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