DENVER — Sheriffs from Colorado and neighboring states Kansas and Nebraska say in a lawsuit to be filed Thursday that Colorado’s marijuana law creates a “crisis of conscience” by pitting the state law against the Constitution and puts an economic burden on other states.
The lawsuit asks a federal court in Denver to strike down Colorado’s Amendment 64 that legalized the sale of recreational marijuana and to close the state’s more than 330 licensed marijuana stores.
Lead plaintiff, Larimer County, Colo., Sheriff Justin Smith, calls the case a “constitutional showdown.” Each day, he says, he must decide whether to violate the Colorado Constitution or the U.S. Constitution. Colorado legalized recreational marijuana sales Jan. 1, 2014, but marijuana remains illegal at the federal level.
Colorado is “asking every peace officer to violate their oath,” Smith said. “What we’re being forced to do … makes me ineligible for office. Which constitution are we supposed to uphold?”
The out-of-state sheriffs say the flow of Colorado’s legal marijuana across the border has increased drug arrests, overburdened police and courts and cost them money in overtime.
Felony drug arrests in the town of Chappell in Deuel County, Neb., 7 miles north of the Colorado border, jumped 400% over three years, a USA TODAY report tracking the flow of marijuana from Colorado into small towns across Nebraska found. Deuel County Sheriff Adam Hayward is one of the plaintiffs.
Police officers monitoring the flow of marijuana outside Colorado say volumes have risen annually. The Colorado-based Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force is still compiling 2014 numbers but expects to see the trend continue, director Tom Gorman said. He said non-residents often strike backdoor deals with legal growers to buy more than they are allowed, then illegally drive, fly or mail the marijuana across state lines.
The lawsuit invokes the federal government’s right to regulate drugs and interstate commerce and argues that Colorado’s decision to legalize marijuana hurt communities on the other side of the state lines. Attorneys general of Nebraska and Oklahoma filed a similar lawsuit late last year.
Colorado has not responded to the suit from the attorneys general, and Gov. John Hickenlooper, the defendant in the sheriffs’ lawsuit, has not been served. Hickenlooper has said he respects the will of Colorado’s voters. He has sought guidance from the federal government.
The Justice Department said it would largely take a hands-off approach in states that have legalized marijuana as long as regulations seek to keep the drugs away from children and criminals. Smith, the sheriff from Larimer, said that guidance amounts to instructing people “how to violate federal law but not get prosecuted.”
Supporters of legalization criticize such lawsuits as last-ditch attempts by conservative politicians to derail states’ movement toward marijuana legalization.
Speaking about the Nebraska-Oklahoma lawsuit in December, Mason Tvert of the Marijuana Policy Project said police should focus their attention on serious crimes and leave alone people who choose to use marijuana.
“These guys are on the wrong side of history,” Tvert said.