In the first congressional hearing since the administration announced a new, permissive enforcement policy, law enforcement and drug-prevention groups and their congressional allies see an opportunity to push back. The administration's Aug. 29 announcement allows the two states where recreational marijuana use has been legalized -- Colorado and Washington -- to go their own way without federal interference as long as they implement strong enforcement systems.
"We are at a precipice," said Kevin Sabet of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a drug prevention group. "We're about to create Big Marijuana by allowing the commercial production, retail sales and mass advertising of this drug similarly to how we have had Big Tobacco for the last hundred years."
The lead witness at Tuesday's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing was to be Deputy Attorney General James Cole, who signed the guidance putting the new marijuana enforcement standards in place.
Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who spent eight years as a prosecutor early in his career, says the Justice Department should focus on prosecuting violent crime and should respect the votes in Colorado and Washington to legalize small amounts of marijuana for personal and medical use.
Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the committee's top Republican and co-chairman of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, says Attorney General Eric Holder's action was "the wrong message to both law enforcement and violators of federal law."
"When marijuana will be fully legal to buy, diversion of the drug will explode," nine former Drug Enforcement Administration chiefs said in a letter to Holder.
With the door to legalization open in two states, others could follow.
The 20,000-member Marijuana Policy Project says it will support efforts to end marijuana prohibition in 10 more states by 2017. Voters in Oregon and Alaska could consider marijuana legalization measures next year.
At the federal level, legislation on financial institutions and marijuana is pending in the House, but not in the Senate. Legalization supporters hope the hearing "will be a springboard" for Senate action, said Bill Piper, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, which was pleased by the federal government's new stance.
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A bill sponsored by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., would exempt from the federal marijuana ban anyone complying with state laws that allow production, possession and delivery of marijuana.
Another measure, sponsored by Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., would allow financial institutions to provide services to legitimate marijuana-related businesses. Currently, processing transactions or investments with money from marijuana sales puts federally insured banks at risk of drug racketeering charges.
Banking long has been an issue in states which have laws permitting medical use of marijuana. In 1996, California voters made their state the first to allow medical use, and 19 more states and the District of Columbia have enacted similar laws.
Other scheduled witnesses at Tuesday's hearing were John Urquhart, the sheriff in King County, Wash., and Jack Finlaw, chief legal counsel to Colorado Gov. John W. Hickenlooper.
Urquhart, a former narcotics detective, says marijuana prohibition is costly and ineffective and says it's important to send a message to the federal government that it should no longer categorize marijuana as an illegal drug in the same category as heroin and LSD.
Finlaw works for a governor who opposed legalization but didn't campaign vigorously against it. In May, Hickenlooper signed legislation governing how recreational marijuana should be grown, sold and taxed, calling it the state's best attempt to navigate the uncharted territory of legalized recreational pot.
Press; By PETE YOST]
Associated Press writer
Colleen Slevin in Denver contributed to this report.
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