The burden of Colorado's pot tourism

Since Colorado legalized marijuana in 2014, it has placed a law-enforcement burden on neighboring states in coping with pot tourists. Now two border states want help from the Supreme Court. They deserve it.

AP Photo
Potential customers from Texas smell marijuana for sale in Breckenridge, Colo.

In the nearly 12 months since Colorado became the first state to allow legal use of recreational marijuana, it has seen more than $300 million in sales of state-regulated pot. Any number of problems have cropped up with this experiment in government advancement of a harmful drug. Yet one problem should not be tolerated: the spillover burden placed on neighboring states from an increase in “marijuana tourists” who are either high or smuggling pot after a trip to the Rocky Mountain State.

Neither Colorado nor the Obama Justice Department has done enough to stop this commercial flow of pot across state lines despite federal laws against it. No wonder then that Nebraska and Oklahoma petitioned the Supreme Court on Thursday to fix the problem. Other states are weighing whether to join the lawsuit. And Oregon, Alaska, and Washington State, which are in the process of legalizing pot, may face similar legal challenges.

Many police departments in states bordering Colorado report a sharp rise in arrests for marijuana as well as related problems, such as intoxicated drivers and sales of more lethal drugs. The added costs include court time, transport of prisoners, and impoundment of vehicles.

While Oklahoma and Nebraska oppose legalizing marijuana, they are not directly challenging Colorado’s right to have done so. Rather they say Colorado’s active participation in the sale of pot through licensing, regulation, and taxation is in violation of the Controlled Substances Act. Under the Constitution, federal drug laws should trump this state action in the sale of pot.

Colorado’s response has been to merely say the lack of federal enforcement is the cause of this grievance by its neighbors. And yet before its law was implemented, Colorado sought to clarify the degree of enforcement by the Justice Department. And its governor tried unsuccessfully to set up ways to track out-of-state sales. Marijuana customers from out of state are not given criminal background checks. Nor are they limited in the number of purchases they make from different outlets.

Will the Supreme Court side with Oklahoma and Nebraska? In recent decades, the court has shifted its stance on the constitutional balance between federal and state powers, with no clear consensus. But first the court must decide to take the case and determine whether the two states have legal standing, including real burdens to bear. A decision could take years.

It is too bad that this issue has now become a federal court case. In its rush to embrace legalization, Colorado failed to also embrace the concerns of its neighbors. Pot’s dangers remain very real to many Americans, especially parents. Resolving this mess will require legalization advocates to love their weed less – or not at all –  and their neighbors more. Or they can wait for a court to tell them 

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