What happens when a state law contradicts a U.S. federal law?

When State and Federal Laws Collide: Marijuana Legalization

As we saw earlier, the federal government can enforce the doctrine of pre-emption, but it doesn't exercise its full power in every case. In California, where medical marijuana is legal, the federal government has taken a different tack.

California legalized medical marijuana in 2003, and the state's marijuana facilities have had a rocky relationship with the federal government, especially beginning in the fall of 2011 [sources: NORML, Rondoni]. Dispensaries in California have been subject to federal raids, though in most cases there haven't been any arrests -- instead, the government seizes and destroys the business owner's plants and sometimes shuts the businesses down completely [source: Ifill].

In an interesting twist, the city of Oakland, Calif. sued the federal government for trying to close the largest medical marijuana facility in the country (which happens to be based in Oakland) [source: Romney]. This case is still unresolved, but if Oakland wins, it could set a precedent protecting California's medical marijuana businesses from federal raids [source: Rondoni].

In Colorado, dispensaries and other medical marijuana businesses have been subject to raids and audits conducted under federal law [source: Chun].

If the federal government's recent treatment of medical marijuana facilities is any indication, Colorado's and Washington's marijuana businesses can expect some legal trouble. When it comes to full-on marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington, the DEA isn't sure what it's going to do yet. Both new laws will be effect by early 2013 and both states have asked the U.S. Dept. of Justice for guidance where the state laws conflict with federal drug law [source: Associated Press]. In Dec. 2012, President Barack Obama stated that the federal government won't go after recreational marijuana users in these states due to limited resources. But the Dept. of Justice is waiting to see what regulations the two states adopt for implementing the ballot initiatives before taking any action [source: Yost].

One big difference between medical marijuana and outright legalization is that there's more of an opportunity for big business to get involved. There are rumors that big tobacco companies like Philip Morris have already snatched up warehouse space in Colorado (though the company denies it) [source: Dokoupil]. This wouldn't be the first time that Philip Morris tried to get in on the pot business. Back in 1993, France was considering legalization, and the company reserved a trademark for the brand name "Marley" [source: NPR]. If big business backs marijuana legalization, it could be potentially game-changing, since unlike small-scale growers and producers, a company like Philip Morris has the money and lobbying power to influence politicians on a federal level.

Author's Note: What happens when a state law contradicts a U.S. federal law?

This was a fascinating topic to research! I have to admit that in the case of Colorado and Washington legalizing marijuana, I'm rooting for the states. Marijuana prohibition has always struck me as a waste of law enforcement's time and resources. Instead of busting college kids for smoking a joint, police could be out fighting violent crime, and states could earn some much-needed extra revenue. The federal government could even tax this multi-billion dollar industry, which makes a lot of sense at a time that we are so worried about the deficit. Instead of spending money, we could be making money. It just feels like ending marijuana prohibition could be a win-win, and I'm hoping that Washington and Colorado will get a chance to demonstrate that.

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