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State and federal law clash on Colorado marijuana legalization

Many Americans applauded voters in Colorado and Washington this past Election Day, when residents decided to legalize the recreational use of marijuana in certain circumstances. However, possession of marijuana remains a federal drug crime, even though it has been legalized at the state level. What does this mean practically for recreational marijuana users? No one is quite sure yet.

The New York Times recently reported that the federal government is still crafting its response to these new state laws. Marijuana legalization laws are tricky because voters are allowed to put legalization laws on the ballot, but that does not change the fact that federal law trumps state law related to drug use. In essence, recreational use is explicitly illegal under the federal Controlled Substances Act. As a result, the Obama administration is not likely to simply allow Colorado and Washington to openly thwart federal law.

Under one scenario, the federal government could choose to sue the states for violating federal law. If the government prevailed in its efforts, recreational use could again become illegal. Though this legal fight seems straightforward, it may be complicated by the increasingly popular position that harshly punishing marijuana users is a waste of time, resources and space in incarceration facilities.

In the end, this issue remains contentious in terms of general policy, law enforcement priorities and the just treatment of minor offenders. How the federal and state law clash over marijuana legalization will end is unknown. But the fact that this fight is far from over is a certainty.

Source: New York Times, "Administration Weighs Legal Action Against States That Legalized Marijuana Use," Charlie Savage, Dec. 6, 2012

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