Top senator to examine Obama’s response to new pot laws

Olivier Knox

Will states' rights go up in smoke?

Democratic Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy said on Thursday that the federal government needs to clear up how it will respond to the recent legalization of pot in Colorado and Washington. So far, the Obama administration has taken a hard line, noting that federal laws banning marijuana remain on the books.

Leahy, who plans to hold a hearing on the matter early next year, released a letter he wrote earlier this month to Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, looking to banish the cloud of "uncertainty" about whether Washington will crack down. The senator highlighted the plight of state officials who will take part in the licensing of marijuana retailers. Could they be punished for implementing state law?

"Legislative options exist to resolve the differences between federal and state law in this area and end the uncertainty that residents of Colorado and Washington now face," Leahy wrote. "In order to give these options full consideration, the committee needs to understand how the administration intends to respond to the decision of the voters in Colorado and Washington.

"What assurance can and will the administration give to state officials involved in the licensing of marijuana retailers that they will not face federal criminal penalties for carrying out duties assigned to them under state law?" he asked.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said in late November that the Department of Justice was looking at the problem. "And as the Justice Department has made clear, its enforcement of the Controlled-Substance Act remains unchanged," Carney said at that briefing.

Still, "what the president has said is that we're not going to prioritize prosecutions of people with cancer or other serious illnesses," he had added. But "the president never made a commitment to give carte blanche to large-scale producers and sellers of marijuana. While the president has asked the Department of Justice to use prosecutorial discretion to best prioritize law enforcement resources, he cannot nullify congressional law."