Legislation decriminalizing the possession of one ounce or less of cannabis in the United States Virgin Islands became law this weekend.
On Friday, Senate lawmakers voted to override Gov. John P. DeJongh’s line-item veto of the decriminalization provision, which had been included in territory’s 2015 fiscal year budget.
The depenalization measure eliminates jail time for minor marijuana offenses. Under the new law, cannabis possession for those age 18 and older is classified as a civil offense, punishable by a fine between $100 and $200. Those under the age of 18 will also be required to complete a drug awareness program.
(Under the previous law, minor marijuana possession offenses were punishable by up to one year in jail and a $5,000 fine.)
The enactment of the new law “will go a long way in easing cost on the judicial system and judicial process,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Terrance Nelson. Senators voted 14-0 to override the President’s veto.
For those of us in the business of changing public policy, sometimes we judge our progress on what we have accomplished; and other times we judge our effectiveness by the desperate acts of our opponents. The federal law suit filed late last week by the states of Nebraska and Oklahoma, seeking a declaratory judgment from the U.S. Supreme Court holding Colorado’s legalization provisions to be unconstitutional, clearly falls in the latter category.
This suit is more political theater than a serious legal challenge. These two conservative state attorneys general know they are losing this fight in the court of public opinion, so they are hoping the Supreme Court will step in and overturn the will of the voters. Desperate times lead to desperate tactics, and the plaintiffs in this action were clearly feeling desperate.
The states of Nebraska and Oklahoma have asked the United States Supreme Court to issue a declaratory judgment finding that Colorado’s laws regulating the state-licensed production and sale of marijuana to adults violates the US Constitution.
The suit, filed today by Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning and Oklahoma Attorney General E. Scott Pruitt, alleges that marijuana is being diverted into their states from Colorado, causing plaintiffs to suffer “irreparable injury.”
The Attorney Generals contend in their suit: “Plaintiff States are suffering a direct and significant detrimental impact – namely the diversion of limited manpower and resources to arrest and process suspected and convicted felons involved in the increased illegal marijuana trafficking or transportation.”
They are asking the Supreme Court to strike down Colorado’s law on the basis that it is “fundamentally at odds” with the federal Controlled Substances Act. They allege, “The diversion of marijuana from Colorado contradicts the clear Congressional intent, frustrates the federal interest in eliminating commercial transactions in the interstate controlled-substances market, and is particularly burdensome for neighboring states like Plaintiff States where law enforcement agencies and the citizens have endured the substantial expansion of Colorado marijuana.”
They seek “a declaratory judgment stating that Sections 16(4) and (5) of Article XVIII of the Colorado Constitution are preempted by federal law, and therefore unconstitutional and unenforceable under the Supremacy Clause, Article VI of the U.S. Constitution.” The US Attorneys are also asking the State of Colorado “to pay the Plaintiff States’ costs and expenses associated with this legal action, including attorneys’ fees.”
The suit does not ask for the Supreme Court to enjoin any other states’ laws regulating the production or dispensing of cannabis for either social or therapeutic purposes, though it is possible that the Court’s actions may have implications for those laws going forward. To date, four states have approved measures allowing for the regulated production and sale of cannabis to adults. Twenty-three states have approved measures allowing for the use of the plant for therapeutic purposes.
Colorado Attorney General John Suthers responded to the suit, stating: “[I]t appears the plaintiffs’ primary grievance stems from non-enforcement of federal laws regarding marijuana, as opposed to choices made by the voters of Colorado. We believe this suit is without merit and we will vigorously defend against it in the U.S. Supreme Court.”
Commenting on the suit, NORML Legal Counsel Keith Stroup said, “This suit is more political theater than a serious legal challenge. These two conservative state attorneys general know they are losing this fight in the court of public opinion, so they are hoping the Supreme Court will intercede.”
Stroup further noted that in recent days a majority of Congress approved language limiting the ability of the federal government to interfere in the implementation of state-sponsored marijuana regulatory schemes. He added: “The majority of Americans, including 55 percent of Colorado voters who endorsed this policy in 2012, support regulating cannabis in a manner similar to alcohol. The Attorney Generals pushing this lawsuit are not only out-of-step with existing public opinion and emerging political opinion, but they are also clearly on the wrong side of history.”
President Barack Obama signed spending legislation into law on Tuesday that includes provisions limiting the Justice Department’s ability to take criminal action against state-licensed individuals or operations that are acting are in full compliance with the medical marijuana laws of their states.
Specifically, an amendment sponsored by California Reps. Dana Rohrbacher and Sam Farr to the $1.1 trillion spending bill states, “None of the funds made available in this act to the Department of Justice may be used … to prevent … states … from implementing their own state laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.”
Said Farr following Congress’ passage of the legislation: “The federal government will finally respect the decisions made by the majority of states that passed medical marijuana laws. This is great day for common sense because now our federal dollars will be spent more wisely on prosecuting criminals and not sick patients.”
Similar language prohibiting the Justice Department from undermining state-sanctioned hemp cultivation programs was also included in the bill.
Also contained in the appropriations measure is a rider sponsored by Maryland Republican Andy Harris that seeks to limit DC officials’ ability to fully implement a November 2014 municipal initiative depenalizing the personal adult possession and cultivation of cannabis. At this time however, it remains unclear whether the enacted language is written in a manner that can actually do so. On Saturday, The Washington Post reported that DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson “plans to ignore the provision” and that he will “send a bill implementing Initiative 71 to Congress in January for a 30-day review, during which federal lawmakers can veto it or let it stand.” Such a review is necessary before any DC initiative can become law.
Washington DC’s Initiative 71, which was approved by 70 percent of District voters, removes criminal and civil penalties regarding the adult possession of up to two ounces of cannabis and/or the cultivation of up to six plants.
The results of a new poll recently released by Third Way, a Washington, D.C. think tank, confirms the country remains largely divided over marijuana policy, a fact also made clear from a number of previous polls, including Gallup, Pew and others. This is, of course, a positive situation for those of us who favor legalization. Only 12 percent of the public supported legalization in 1970, when NORML began challenging prohibition, and it has been a long, slow slog to win their support.
And we can reasonably anticipate even higher levels of support in the near future, as the public become comfortable with the results of full legalization in the first few states to head in that direction. Legalization is no longer just a legal theory that people can speculate about; we finally have the opportunity to measure and analyze the results of actual legalization systems in place in several states (four and counting).