It is no secret that I personally did not vote for the ballot initiative in the year 2000 that legalized medical marijuana. Nor did I vote for the initiative to legalize recreational marijuana in 2012. My personal views on marijuana have not changed, and if votes on these two questions were on the ballot today, I would still oppose both of these measures. However, the majority of voters in the State of Colorado did vote to approve them, and as one of their elected representatives in Congress, I believe it’s my obligation to defend Colorado’s right to define its own destiny and to prevent Washington, D.C. from thwarting a decision I believe Coloradans had the legal right to make under the U.S. Constitution.
The Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to “regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States…” These words have been the subject of much debate over the years. An expansive reading of this clause gives the federal government broad power to regulate personal behavior and commerce, while a more conservative reading of the clause limits federal authority solely to activities that cross state lines, exempting commercial activities that occur exclusively within a state. I subscribe to the narrower and more “limited” definition of federal powers because I strongly believe that is exactly what the framers of our Constitution had in mind.
In 2005, the Supreme Court, by a 6-3 vote, held that the Commerce Clause allows Congress to prohibit the personal growth and use of medical marijuana. Justice Clarence Thomas disagreed, writing, “If Congress can regulate this under the Commerce Clause, then it can regulate virtually anything—and the Federal Government is no longer one of limited and enumerated powers.” Justice Thomas went on to add that the Commerce Clause does not permit Congress to “Exercise police power of the sort reserved to the States in order to eliminate even the intrastate possession and use of marijuana.”
Justice Thomas was and is absolutely correct – the federal government can and should only regulate commerce that crosses state lines, or interstate commerce. According to the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Between the Commerce Clause and the Tenth Amendment, it is clear to me that the growth, sale, and use of marijuana for medicinal or recreational purposes, that occurs solely within a state’s boundaries, is not commerce “among the states” – because it does not cross state boundaries. Therefore, it should not be regulated by the federal government.
In Washington, D.C., I have long fought on three fronts to protect Colorado’s rights on this issue. First, I have worked with my fellow Colorado U.S. Representative Ed Perlmutter, who sits on the Financial Services Committee, to support his efforts (HR. 2215, the SAFE Act of 2017) to lift the federal restrictions on allowing marijuana businesses to have access to federally-regulated financial services. Restricting access to financial services makes marijuana businesses operate on an “all cash” basis, which makes them more prone to criminality and makes it harder to collect the taxes due the government without the audit trail of a banking relationship.
Second , I’ve co-sponsored a recent bill, (HR. 2528 Respect States’ and Citizen’s Rights Act of 2017), by another of my Colorado colleagues, U.S. Representative Diana DeGette, that would direct the federal government to respect and defer to state laws, such as those passed in Colorado, that have legalized marijuana for medical or recreational purposes.
Finally, I am working with a third Coloradan, U.S. Representative Jared Polis, on co-sponsoring an appropriations amendment to the annual funding bill for the Department of Justice that would deny Justice the ability to use any taxpayer dollars to enforce federal drug laws in a state that has legalized either medical or recreational marijuana.
While discussions on this topic continue, we must respect the Constitution as well as the right of Coloradans to make their own decisions on matters that are purely within the jurisdiction to the State of Colorado, and I will continue to do everything in my power to ensure that the federal government will respect our states’ rights and sovereignty.
Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman represents Aurora and the 6th Congressional District.