On April 12, the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act was introduced to the House of Congress by a bipartisan coalition. The Act proposes amending the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 to decriminalize marijuana use and distribution at the federal level when such acts are carried out within the boundaries of state law. As the law currently stands, marijuana is classified as a Schedule I drug under the CSA. Schedule I drugs and substances are defined as having a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use in treatment performed in the United States, and a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision.
Marijuana restrictions under the CSA directly conflicts with state laws that decriminalize the substance for medicinal or recreational purposes. The discrepancy between federal and state laws culminated in 2005 with the Supreme Court case Gonzales v. Raich. In 1996, California passed the Compassionate Use Act legalizing cannabis for medicinal use. In spite of this enactment, Drug Enforcement Agency agents continued to assert their power to destroy marijuana plants being grown exclusively for medical use in California, under the rationale that marijuana plants are illegal Schedule I drugs.
Though state governments have general police power, the Court found that the prohibition of intrastate manufacturing and possession of marijuana delineated in the CSA was within the scope of Congress’s exclusive power over interstate commerce. The Supreme Court held that in accordance with the CSA, the federal government may criminalize the possession, manufacture and distribution of marijuana within individual states, irrespective of a state’s local laws. The federal ban extends to the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. Thus, even if a state has decriminalized marijuana for recreational or medical use, federal agents may still arrest and prosecute businesses such as medical marijuana dispensaries and individuals who are in compliance with state regulations. Despite the Court’s finding, multiple states continue to allow medical marijuana in established quantities.
United States Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), one of the sponsors of the bill, hopes that the Act will create “a common-sense approach” that will “[keep] the federal government out of the business of criminalizing marijuana activities in states that don’t want it to be criminal”. Though this is not Ms. Rohrabacher’s first legislation proposal, the current bill comes in the wake of Colorado and Washington’s outright legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes. The Respect State Marijuana Laws Act is one of many reform bills awaiting a Congressional vote. The movement for marijuana reform being promulgated by both Democrat and Republican state representatives demonstrates a collective desire to restrain federal powers and preempt a federal government lawsuit to strike down the referendums passed in Washington and Colorado.