There is a nation-wide evolution occurring in attitudes towards marijuana. While the drug has been categorized as illegal for decades, certain States, such as Washington State and Colorado, have made significant changes in their state laws making marijuana legal for adults to use recreationally. Notably, these states have also provided a legal supply chain for the production and sale of marijuana. This November, Colorado will ask voters to approve a 15 percent Marijuana excise tax to help fund school construction and to vote upon a 10 percent tax to help pay for marijuana regulatory enforcement. There are even discussions which consider that these taxes will not cover the expense of legalization. As is suggested by the most recent ballot initiative in Portland, Maine, to make possession of marijuana by adults of less than 2.5 ounces legal, might it be possible that Maine could be the next state to legalize marijuana statewide?
In the event that Maine does choose to legalize the cultivation, sale, and possession/ use of marijuana, it is important to understand that such a change in Maine’s law would create a conflict with federal laws, under which marijuana remains illegal, period.
Federal Law States Marijuana is Illegal
Even if Maine changes the status of marijuana to a legal substance, akin to alcohol or tobacco products, this does not change the Federal law, in which marijuana remains an illegal drug.
In the federal law, the severity of the crime pertaining to marijuana depends on the weight of the marijuana seized by federal drug enforcement. In turn, the weight of the marijuana determines the sentence the offender would receive according to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. Overall, in federal criminal prosecutions, there is not a lot of “wiggle-room” for a defendant to reduce a sentence after the weight of the marijuana has been confirmed.
One of the federal rationales for continuing to clamp down so hard on marijuana despite changing attitudes is that the illegal sale of marijuana tends to support financially illegal drug operations, such as gangs and cartels, who work across many states at one time, and who sell much harder and harmful drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, and who commit other violent crimes.
Certainly it is a legitimate interest of government to keep the public safe from harm from the dangers posed by these large and violent criminal networks. At the same time, unlike other kinds of illegal drugs, which are either manufactured or “cooked” and then shipped long distances, marijuana is a plant that needs to be grown. As a result, marijuana production can be a “local” operation. What might happen if in all 50 States, marijuana were grown, sold, and possessed legally and locally? Could this not take a significant financial bite out of the bottom line of criminal operations if they can no longer sell illegal marijuana because it can be purchased legally? While this might not shut down these large networks, it might trigger a shift in how these organizations “do business.”
What can happen because of this conflict of laws?
When Colorado announced its change of laws legalizing marijuana, the Federal drug enforcement agencies noted that it would not enforce federal laws within the State’s legal marijuana infrastructure. Instead, the federal laws that would continue to be enforced would include those preventing interstate trafficking of marijuana, among other stated federal interests. In other words, while the federal government has indicated that it would not interfere with an intra-state operation, if that operation extended beyond the State’s boundaries, then the federal law that marijuana is illegal would supersede the State law that marijuana is legal.
From a policy perspective also, it might not be worth it to expend limited time and resources for the Department of Justice to send out drug enforcement agents to enforce federal laws in States that have made marijuana legal.
Therefore, if Maine legalized marijuana, then technically it remains possible that federal drug enforcement can be dispatched to enforce federal law in Maine despite State law if the federal agencies feel such enforcement is necessary. Any such enforcement would certainly be disruptive and potentially damaging economically for the community that had received the enforcement.
How can this conflict of laws be alleviated?
Without a similar change in the federal law to be a closer match to State law, having marijuana legal on the State level but illegal on the federal level will continue to be a conflict. One way that the federal agencies have coped thus far simply is to not pursue enforcement of all federal marijuana laws where the drug has been made legal on the State level. Another means of change might occur in the future if many more States, such as more than half, decide to legalize marijuana. In this instance, the federal laws might be more encouraged to change their position.
Overall, this post has simply described the conflict between federal and State law if Maine ever decided to legalize marijuana completely. Currently in Maine, marijuana is still an illegal drug if possessed in amounts over 2.5 ounces, as well as in terms of furnishing, cultivation, and trafficking. However if you enjoyed reading this speculation, you may also want to check out: