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Washington state ponders next moves in marijuana standoff

National Constitution Center

Washington state officials are dealing with new issues as they discuss a resolution to their state’s conflict with the federal government over legalized marijuana. But the state remains committed to legalization.

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Source: United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

Source: United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

Newly sworn-in Governor Jay Inslee was in the nation’s capital on Tuesday to meet with Attorney General Eric Holder and Justice Department officials about his state’s decriminalization of recreational marijuana use.

After the meeting, Inslee said the state was moving forward with making rules about growing, processing and selling marijuana, under very controlled circumstances.

Washington state and Colorado both legalized pot in November 2012 voter referendums that seemingly violate federal laws.

In November, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper reportedly spoke with Holder about the same issue on a phone call.

Voters in the two states chose to legalize it for recreational use following 18 states that approved it for medical use.

The marijuana issue is complicated, since the federal government considers marijuana (both medical and recreational) a Schedule 1 controlled substance that is illegal. But it also doesn’t have the financial and human resources to arrest marijuana users in Washington state and Colorado.

So while federal law is designed to trump state law when it comes to marijuana use, the reality is that the two sides will need to reach some type of compromise.

Leaders like Inslee and Hickenlooper are pressing the Justice Department to file a lawsuit or to define which parts of the federal laws they plan to enforce.

Inslee, a Democrat, said during his election campaign that he didn’t support legalization, but he would honor the voters’ wishes as governor.

Now, as governor, Inslee is facing several offshoots of the federal-state legal conflict that are problematic.

Earlier this week, two stories highlighted legal wrinkles in allowing recreational marijuana use in conjunction with federal resources.

In one instance, farmers in Washington have been running into problems if they want to grow marijuana as a cash crop: The agricultural research they need may come from state universities that get federal funds.

Also, recreational marijuana is posing an interesting problem at ski resorts, which pose to benefit from an influx of newly interested tourists. Many ski resorts in Washington and Colorado use federally owned land, says the website On the Snow, and the Justice Department has made it clear that pot use won’t be tolerated on federal property.

David Cronheim, an attorney who specializes in skiing legal issues, told On the Snow that the federal law rules supreme when it comes to marijuana use on the slopes.

“Where state law conflicts with federal law, the federal law controls. That’s known as the supremacy clause,” said Cronheim. “Personally, from a lawyer’s perspective, I think it’s a dangerous proposition when states try to nullify federal law. We fought a civil war over that.”

Link: Read more about the Supremacy Clause

Neither Colorado nor Washington’s law allows public marijuana use, either through smoking or internal consumption.

Officials in Washington state were scheduled to have their first public meeting on Tuesday night to discuss how to draw up rules about public marijuana sales.

On Monday, Washington state officials said they expected to exercise close control over the cultivation and processing of marijuana, in order to avoid conflict with federal authorities.

Washington’s Liquor Control Board will regulate the process.

Marijuana advocates also received a court defeat on Tuesday when a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., rejected a petition to remove the substance from the list of Schedule 1 controlled substances.

Medical marijuana groups had filed the petition, which was earlier rejected in 2011 by the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.

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