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Supreme Court Building
The Supreme Court building is seen in Washington.
(Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press)

The Supreme Court on Monday rejected a conservative challenge to the marijuana legalization laws adopted in Colorado and elsewhere that permit adults to buy, sell or use one ounce of the drug.

By a 6-2 vote, the justices turned away a lawsuit brought by Nebraska and Oklahoma, whose state attorneys complained that illegal marijuana was pouring into their states as a result of Colorado’s liberalized laws.

“The state of Colorado authorizes, oversees, protects and profits from a sprawling $100-million-per-month marijuana growing, processing and retailing organization that exported thousands of pounds of marijuana to some 36 states in 2014,” they said. “If this entity were based south of our border, the federal government would prosecute it as a drug cartel.”

They argued that Colorado’s law violates the federal Controlled Substances Act, which treats marijuana as a dangerous drug and forbids its sale or use. They urged the Supreme Court to take up the issue as an “original” matter and declare that Colorado’s law was preempted by the federal drug laws.

The suit brought by Nebraska and Oklahoma also implicitly challenged the Obama administration for its refusal to intervene more directly in Colorado.

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Since California’s voters in 1996 authorized medical use of marijuana, 22 other states have adopted similar measures. Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska went further and allowed for the production and sale of marijuana for recreational use.

Faced with this state-by-state rebellion against an unchanging federal drug law, the Justice Department issued guidance telling prosecutors to focus on “significant traffickers of illegal drugs,” not on users of medical marijuana.

Last year, the justices asked U.S. Solicitor Gen. Donald Verrilli to weigh in on the interstate legal battle over marijuana, and in December, he urged the court to turn away the lawsuit. Nebraska and Oklahoma have not suffered a “direct injury” from their neighbor to the West, he said, and they remain free to vigorously police marijuana in their states. 

In response, the Nebraska and Oklahoma state attorneys said the Justice Department has “turned its back” on enforcing the federal law and is permitting it to be “dismantled by piecemeal nullification.”

Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. dissented Monday. “The plaintiff states have alleged significant harms to their sovereign interests caused by another state,” Thomas wrote. “We should let this complaint proceed further rather than denying leave without so much as a word of explanation.”

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