Earlier this month, Rohrabacher introduced a measure called the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act of 2017, which would protect people from marijuana-related prosecutions under the Controlled Substances Act, provided that they were acting in compliance with state laws. The bill has drawn bipartisan co-sponsorship.
Voters and lawmakers in many states have been liberalizing their marijuana laws since the 1990s, sometimes drastically so. Most have opted to scale back the strict marijuana prohibitions of an earlier era, adopting regulatory structures that allow for everything from limited access to certain marijuana-derived chemicals for medical use all the way up to full-blown commercial legalization and regulation.
The disconnect between state and federal laws leaves many marijuana users, patients, businesses and researchers stuck in an uncomfortable gray area between the two. Federal authorities could technically sweep in at any minute, shutting down businesses and arresting marijuana users even in places where it’s legal under state law.
That this hasn’t happened on any significant scale since Colorado and Washington’s state legalized marijuana in 2012 is partly because federal authorities lack the manpower to do so. Most drug enforcement is handled at the state level, by state and local police. This fact was explicitly acknowledged by Obama’s Justice Department in what came to be known as the Cole Memo, which laid out a federal policy of noninterference with state marijuana laws provided certain guidelines, like preventing underage people from using marijuana, were adhered to.
But a memo is just a voluntary statement. It doesn’t have the force of law, and the new administration could choose to adhere to it or ignore it, depending on its own enforcement priorities.