All eyes are on Colorado, but will Congress need to get in the weeds?

Posted on January 10, 2014

All eyes are on Colorado, but will Congress need to get in the weeds?

By Sherri Simmons, President and CEO

Usually, during January most people are tuned in to Colorado news for snow reports, ski conditions and the Winter X Games.  This year, the legal sale and use of recreational marijuana has been added to the list.

Regardless of your position on the issue – it will be an interesting one to watch.  And even more so, one to experience.  And no, it’s not the inhalation of which I’m writing.  It’s the complexity of U.S. government in all its incongruences – the separation of powers within our three branches of government, the dichotomy of regulatory concerns, the delineation of federal and state law, state’s rights – and the Fourth Estate, the press.  Strongly influencing each is the pendulum of public opinion.

Even though the use or sale of marijuana is a violation of federal law, 20 states and the District of Columbia have enacted medical marijuana laws.  New York State has stated it will be the 21st.  And with Washington State on the heels of Colorado in terms of the actual implementation of recreational legalization, what will be the ensuing actions of the three branches of government?

The administration, through the Department of Justice (DOJ), has stated that it will not pre-empt state marijuana laws for now, as long as those states maintain strict rules for the sale and distribution.  It will however, focus on areas of enforcement that include preventing distribution to minors, stopping the growth of marijuana on public land, keeping it away from cartels and gangs – and preventing it from flowing into states where it remains illegal.

That sets aside the law enforcement issue for legal growers, producers, sellers and users – for the time being.  But what about implications for financial institutions, which are regulated by federal law?  According to The Wall Street Journal, financial institutions are actively seeking DOJ’s legal guidance from DOJ n managing bank accounts for businesses that grow, produce and sale state-legalized marijuana.  DOJ sources say a memo is forthcoming.

The federally-regulated credit card industry is also in a conundrum.  Its customers are conducting transactions in states where marijuana is legal, but according to the branch of government that regulates them – it’s not. “What’s in your wallet?” takes on a whole new meaning.

States are also finding ways to maneuver around their own legislatures.  New York, for example, is using a Nineteenth Century law regulating marijuana use as dispensed by the state.  According to MSNBC, New York will soon be growing and managing its own weed stores.  Cool – if you are among the 55% of Americans who currently support the legalization of marijuana.  Or not – if your teenager is standing in the bong line, or you don’t support legalization.

The legal angle is also intriguing.  How will the Federal Courts rule as the inevitable slew of lawsuits are filed?

The press, as in any public debate, is already playing a formidable role – focusing on the myriad of angles, providing deeper insight and editorial commentary, while shining a brighter light onto the intricacies of a state-driven movement that defies federal law.

Given the complexities and growing momentum, this issue will ultimately need to be addressed by Congress.  A year or so from now, we may be in the midst of an epic battle over national legalization. Each side knowing that public opinion will drive the outcome.

Public relations and public affairs experts will be facing off  to help influence the debate, deploying a full arsenal of communications strategies, which is even more powerful as social media continues to expand and evolve. 

Today the number of people who support legalization is at 55%.  But what about three months, six months, or a year from now?  Which side will swing the pendulum of public opinion?  And what will Congress do?

 NOTE:  As of today, Colorado is reporting a marijuana shortage.    

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