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Federal Government Will Vigorously Enforce Marijuana Laws

By Jason Beahm on October 19, 2010 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Attorney General Eric Holder said that the U.S. government will "vigorously enforce" federal laws prohibiting the possession and cultivation of marijuana, regardless of whether Proposition 19 passes. However the federal government has extremely limited police resources compared to the State of California. The vast majority of drug arrests are made at the state level.

It's the kind of scenario that is understandably hard to conceptualize. Last evening, I was trying to explain the legal principles behind marijuana laws and federal supremacy to a Dutch attorney and our conversation roughly went as follows:

Me: So the Federal government says that it's going to arrest people and vigorously enforce federal marijuana laws in California, even if California passes Prop. 19 and legalizes marijuana.

Dutch Attorney: I don't understand. Why would they be arresting people if it's legal in the state?

Me: Because it would still be illegal under federal law.

Dutch Attorney: So California can vote and pass a law, which the federal government can choose to ignore, and come into the state and arrest people.

Me: Yep. Generally speaking, federal law trumps state law. It's not always that simple, but in this case, the federal government has a pretty strong legal argument, even if the outcome seems silly.

Dutch Attorney: That's exactly my point. What's the point of doing it this way? Having California legalize something that it can't legalize and have the federal government trying to enforce laws that now exist in a gray area? Why not have it settled once at for all in the top court and move on with it?

Me: (Somewhat stunned by the point). No you're completely right, if Prop. 19 passes, the debate on marijuana will be far from over, it will likely instead drag on for years. We'll see spotty occasional enforcement with some random instances of people getting arrested on federal charges. It will be a bit of a prison lottery. And then, eventually, after several years it will finally go to the Supreme Court, who would hopefully settle it once and for all. Or, they might duck the central issue...

Dutch Attorney: I'm out of here. I don't think our system is perfect either but I've heard enough about your's for the night. Good night Jason.

Me: Good night, Dutch Attorney.

I hope that this window into my world demonstrates that the law is confusing to everyone at times. Just because you have a law license doesn't mean every legal principle makes sense. Just because you don't have a law license doesn't mean that you can't comprehend legal principles, either.

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