U.S. Supreme Court pot announcement extends legalization debate
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday denied Nebraska and Oklahoma’s proposed lawsuit against Colorado’s legal marijuana laws.
The decision means the nation’s highest court will not rule on the interstate dispute, and Colorado’s legal cannabis market is safe — for now.
Because the Supreme Court has passed on the case, Nebraska and Oklahoma could now take it to a federal district court if they choose to, law experts say. The states have not yet said how or if they will move forward with a similar suit in another court.
“The complaint, on its face, presents a ‘controversy between two or more States’ that this Court alone has authority to adjudicate,” Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in the dissenting opinion. “The plaintiff States have alleged significant harms to their sovereign interests caused by another State. Whatever the merit of the plaintiff States’ claims, we should let this complaint proceed further rather than denying leave dissenting without so much as a word of explanation.”
Justice Samuel Alito joined him in dissenting with a majority of justices.
Legalization activists reacted positively to the court’s decision on Monday.
“There’s no question about it: This is good news for legalization supporters,” said advocate Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority. “This case, if it went forward and the court ruled the wrong way, had the potential to roll back many of the gains our movement has achieved to date. And the notion of the Supreme Court standing in the way could have cast a dark shadow on the marijuana ballot measures voters will consider this November.”
The lawsuit was filed more than a year ago by two neighboring states, Nebraska and Oklahoma, and it specifically challenges Colorado’s ability to license and regulate marijuana businesses. The two states say Colorado’s system impermissibly conflicts with federal law and creates burdens for the two states by increasing the amount of pot coming across their borders.
Because the lawsuit involves a dispute between states, it was filed directly to the Supreme Court. The first step in the lawsuit was for the justices to decide whether they even wanted to consider it. When the Supreme Court does accept such cases, the subsequent litigation can go on for years or even decades.
Attorneys for both the state of Colorado and the Obama administration had urged the Supreme Court not to take up the lawsuit, while a group of former leaders of the Drug Enforcement Administration sided with Nebraska and Oklahoma and asked the court to accept the case.
In 2012, Colorado voters legalized possession of small amounts of marijuana and also authorized the creation of state-administered rules that would allow stores to sell marijuana to anyone over 21 years old. Those stores opened in 2014, and, since then, Nebraska and Oklahoma say they have seen an increased number of people bringing marijuana into their states, in violation of both their state laws and federal law.
“The State of Colorado has created a dangerous gap in the federal drug control system,” the two states complained in their lawsuit.
Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman responded that eliminating the stores — while keeping marijuana possession legal — would likely create more trafficking. And, the Obama administration, in its own filing, said the case was inappropriate for the Supreme Court because the harm is allegedly being caused by individual lawbreakers not the state of Colorado, itself.
“Entertaining the type of dispute at issue here — essentially that one State’s laws make it more likely that third parties will violate federal and state law in another State — would represent a substantial and unwarranted expansion of this Court’s original jurisdiction,” U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. wrote in his brief to the court.
The Supreme Court justices spent more than a year pondering whether to take the case. The lawsuit was scheduled and re-scheduled five times for a closed-door conference, where the justices would debate the merits of taking the case.
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