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Rubel: Checkpoints Add To Federal-State Conflict On Marijuana Laws

Walt Rubel

COMMENTARY: I realize there are other issues higher on his priority list, but I hope President Joe Biden clarifies the federal government’s position on the enforcement of marijuana laws before legal sales begin here next year.

New Mexico was the 18th state to legalize adult marijuana use, and all of those states have a conflict with the federal government. But the situation in southern New Mexico is unique because of the Border Patrol checkpoints along all of our highways.

Kyle Williamson, special agent in charge of the El Paso Sector of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, explained recently that federal enforcement of marijuana laws has shifted with the changing administrations.

Under Barack Obama, the Cole Memorandum was issued by the Justice Department in 2013, directing U.S. attorneys not to enforce federal marijuana laws in states that have legalized the drug, except in cases where nonenforcement would undermine other priorities. That order was rescinded by Donald Trump, and the DEA became more aggressive in its enforcement against marijuana in states where it had been legalized.

Because the Biden administration has not yet weighed in on the issue, the policy of the previous administration is still in effect, Williamson said. That means Border Patrol agents at the highway checkpoints surrounding Las Cruces will continue to enforce marijuana laws as if the state law didn’t exist.

There were 26 seizures of small amounts of marijuana by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection in just the first two weeks of April. Each person who was stopped faced the potential of a $1,000 civil penalty, and exposure to local criminal prosecution.

My second-least favorite thing about living in Las Cruces, behind the spring winds, is the fact that we can’t leave town without stopping at a government checkpoint to allow law enforcement officers to peer suspiciously into our vehicles. It’s a touch of East Germany in the Desert Southwest, especially on those days when they have the German Shepherds out sniffing at your hubcaps.

These daily infringements on our freedom to travel are made tolerable by the fact that the encounters are typically short and occasionally pleasant. They rely on a mutual respect between the officers and the local residents passing through.

If the federal government disrespects the will of our state’s leaders and continues to enforce prohibitions against a substance that our state has deemed to be safe and legal, that mutual respect will erode quickly.

During his recent Senate confirmation hearings, new U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland suggested a return to Obama-era policies of deprioritizing marijuana enforcement. That’s a step in the right direction, but more than one step is needed.

Merely deciding to deprioritize enforcement will not resolve the problem, and will leave the door open for a swing back to enforcement following the next election. The government also needs to permanently revise its drug classifications.

In the eyes of the federal government, marijuana is still classified as being more dangerous than opioids. How can that be? And, what does it say about the knowledge and motives of those doing the classifying?

I see little hope for legislation proposed by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to revise federal laws. Not as long as the filibuster remains in place.

It’s far too late for the federal government to lead on this issue. But it would be nice if they got out of the way.

Walter Rubel can be reached at waltrubel@gmail.com.