Colorado Sheriffs And Prosecutors Are Challenging The State’s Legal Marijuana Law

Image by Bruce Stanfield.


by Owen Poindexter

on March 5, 2015

Colorado sheriffs have filed a lawsuit in an attempt to overturn legal cannabis in their state. The suit, filed in Denver federal district court against Gov. John Hickenlooper, argues that the officials are sworn to uphold both state and federal law, and the contradiction on marijuana between state and federal laws makes this impossible. While these claims, laid out in a document signed by a collection of Colorado county sheriffs, plus a few from neighboring Nebraska and Kansas, are factually accurate, the signatories would do well to look at the benefits his state has reaped as a result of the revolutionary policy.

Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana for recreational use in 2012, with Colorado the first to authorize actual sales. Since then, Alaska, Oregon and Washington D.C. have legalized as well, with a handful of states looking to join them in 2016. As the state with the most time since its laws were enacted, Colorado is the most closely studied legalization guinea pig. So far, the results have been almost entirely neutral or positive. The state took in an estimated $31 million in tax revenues from cannabis sales in 2014. Property values are up and violent crime has dipped. None of this has stopped the cadre of sheriffs who believe their time was better spent busting nonviolent people for using and selling the herb.

“This suit is about one thing: the rule of law,” writes Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith in a released statement. “The Colorado Constitution mandates that all elected officials, including sheriffs, swear an oath of office to uphold both the United States as well as the Colorado Constitutions.”

Maj. Neill Franklin (Ret.), former Maryland State police captain and executive director of the advocacy group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, argues against the spirit of the lawsuit.

“Legalizing marijuana has allowed police to focus on real crimes but taken away their excuse for otherwise unjustified searches and seizures,” Franklin said in a statement. “I would ask those officers to think about why they joined the force in the first place, why they risk their lives every day just to do their jobs. I doubt many would say it’s to go after low-level drug offenders.… They would say they went into this job because they wanted to protect people, to be heroes, and it’s about time they recognize that that’s the opposite of what they’re doing when they defend current drug policy.”

The contradiction between state and federal law has long been a fact of life in the United States — not just in states with recreational cannabis, but in more than half the states in the U.S. Medical marijuana is illegal under federal law, but 23 states have comprehensive laws on their books to allow it. Additionally, a slew of mostly conservative states have very restrictive medical marijuana laws that allow for low-THC/high-CBD cannabis for a short list of conditions. Meanwhile, the federal government has become increasingly disengaged from policing pot sales that are legal at the state level. Recently, two congressional bills were introduced which would regulate and tax cannabis at the federal level, ending its prohibition.

While coverage around the lawsuit has focused on the question of whether marijuana legalization could be overturned in the court system, the sheriffs claim would be equally resolved if federal restrictions against cannabis were struck down. The Obama administration does not seem focused on the issue at the moment, but the question lingers over whether Obama will reschedule cannabis (moving it from Schedule I, which is the most highly restricted category of ‘drug’ in the U.S.) before his presidency ends. He has the power to single-handedly do so, as drug scheduling is an executive branch duty. Without this sort of executive action, it’s unlikely that the legal contradiction between federal law and state law will come to an end anytime soon.