By Barb Adams, Amerika Now
Trevor Hughes, Fort Collins Coloradoan/USA TODAY 3:12 p.m. MST December 18, 2014
(Fort Collins Coloradoan)
The attorneys general of Nebraska and Oklahoma sued Colorado in the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday, arguing state-legalized marijuana from Colorado is improperly spilling across state lines.
The suit invokes the federal government's right to regulate both drugs and interstate commerce, and says Colorado's decision to legalize marijuana has been "particularly burdensome" to police agencies on the other side of the state line.
In June, USA TODAY highlighted the flow of marijuana from Colorado into small towns across Nebraska: felony drug arrests in Chappell, Nebraska, just seven miles north of the Colorado border have skyrocketed 400% in three years.
"In passing and enforcing Amendment 64, the state of Colorado has created a dangerous gap in the federal drug control system enacted by the United States Congress. Marijuana flows from this gap into neighboring states, undermining plaintiff states' own marijuana bans, draining their treasuries, and placing stress on their criminal justice systems," says the lawsuit. "The Constitution and the federal anti-drug laws do not permit the development of a patchwork of state and local pro-drug policies and licensed distribution schemes throughout the country which conflict with federal laws."
Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt said the lawsuit makes a distinction between legalized marijuana and the extensive commercialization permitted by Colorado.
"What we take issue with is this licensing scheme, this commercialization, that the state has promoted at the expense of Oklahoma and Nebraska," Pruitt said. "This is not just simply that Colorado has legalized the use and possession ... there are illegal products that are being trafficked across state lines. Clearly we've been injured."
"This is not just simply that Colorado has legalized the use and possession ... there are illegal products that are being trafficked across state lines. Clearly we've been injured."
Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt
In a statement, Colorado Attorney General John Suthers said he wasn't "entirely surprised" by the lawsuit, but said Nebraska and Oklahoma are attacking the wrong people.
"Because neighboring states have expressed concern about Colorado-grown marijuana coming into their states, we are not entirely surprised by this action," said Suthers. "However, it appears the plaintiffs' primary grievance stems from non-enforcement of federal laws regarding marijuana, as opposed to choices made by the voters of Colorado. We believe this suit is without merit and we will vigorously defend against it in the U.S. Supreme Court."
Lawsuits filed by the states directly with the Supreme Court are rare, and Pruitt said there's no way to know how quickly the court may respond.
On January 1, 2014, Colorado legalized the recreational sale of marijuana to adults, regardless of where they live. And while the law prohibits people from taking that pot outside Colorado, some police officers in bordering states say they've seen an increase in marijuana flowing across the borders.
"Is it all coming from Colorado? Hell no. It's coming from all over. But I can tell you our numbers are double what they were last year," BJ Wilkinson, the police chief in Sidney, Nebraska, said in June. "Twice as often now, when we walk up to a car, we can smell burned marijuana."
The federally funded Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area team says it has documented a 13,000% increase in marijuana seizures in its four-state operating area from 2005 to 2012. Those statistics were gathered before recreational sales of marijuana became legal in Colorado this year.
On Thursday, Deuel County, Nebraska, Sheriff Adam Hayward welcomed Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning's lawsuit. He said he hopes the federal government will act. Hayward for months has been asking his state's leaders to take a harder line against Colorado's marijuana marketplace.
He said while marijuana was always available in his area, it was never so widespread. He said minor traffic stops on the nearby interstate that used to take a few minutes to deal with now can take hours because so many people are illegally carrying marijuana out of Colorado.
"And now you're tying up two or three officers," Hayward said. "It's a diversion of resources."
"It appears the plaintiffs' primary grievance stems from non-enforcement of federal laws regarding marijuana, as opposed to choices made by the voters of Colorado,"
Colorado Attorney General John Suthers.
He said harder drugs, like heroin and meth, have followed the increase in marijuana availability. Deuel County lies on Colorado's northeastern border.
"You know, they used to be drug dealers. But now they're legal and they're called businessmen," Hayward said. "But those businesspeople haven't given up their bad habits. They're selling marijuana out the front door, legal marijuana, and illegal drugs out the back door."
Legalization advocates said Colorado did the right thing by ending the war on drugs, and said marijuana was widely available and consumed in Nebraska and Oklahoma before Colorado legalized pot.
Colorado's marijuana system requires extensive background checks for growers and vendors, along with strict ongoing licensing and monitoring by police.
"Coloradans overwhelmingly voted in favor of legalizing marijuana. In so doing, we've chosen the licensed and regulated marijuana businesses over violent criminal organizations. Colorado has created a comprehensive and robust regulatory program for the sale of marijuana in Colorado," Mike Elliot of Colorado's Marijuana Industry Group said in a statement. "And the data is overwhelmingly showing that Colorado has enhanced public safety, the economy, and the freedom of its citizens. If Nebraska and Oklahoma succeed, they will put the violent criminal organizations back in charge."
Mason Tvert of the national Marijuana Policy Project was more blunt: "These guys are on the wrong side of history."