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Supreme Court Dismisses Colorado Marijuana Case

By Tom Angell onMarch 21, 2016

The United States Supreme Court on Monday dismissed a case against Colorado that could have dealt a devastating blow to legal marijuana laws in a growing number of states.

The lawsuit, which Nebraska and Oklahoma filed in late 2014, compared marijuana coming over their borders from Colorado to pollution. They said that as a result, their law enforcement agencies, courts and jails are being unduly overburdened.

Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justice Samuel Alito, filed a written dissent against the Court’s refusal to hear the case, writing, “If this Court does not exercise jurisdiction over a controversy between two States, then the complaining State has no judicial forum in which to seek relief.”

The support of four justices was needed for the case to move forward. It has been widely speculated that the recent death of Justice Antonin Scalia likely left the plaintiffs with one fewer vote than they otherwise would have had.

It is possible that one additional justice joined Thomas and Alito in wanting to take up the case without signing their written dissent, but discussions and votes on granting review take place behind closed doors and are generally publicly unknown until years or decades later, when justices die or retire and their papers are made available to scholars.

According to the case docket, the justices were scheduled to discuss the case behind closed doors on four occasions in the past two months, most recently on Friday.

The ruling was met with relief and celebration from organizations focused on ending cannabis prohibition.

“This was a meritless lawsuit, and the court made the right decision,” Mason Tvert, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project, said in a statement. “States have every right to regulate the cultivation and sale of marijuana, just as Nebraska and Oklahoma have the right to maintain their failed prohibition policies. Colorado has done more to control marijuana than just about any other state in the nation. It will continue to set an example for other states that are considering similar laws in legislatures and at the ballot box.”

Tamar Todd of the Drug Policy Alliance called the decision “excellent news for the many other states looking to adopt similar reforms in 2016 and beyond.”

Had the Court decided to take up the case, it could have cast a dark shadow on efforts to enact legalization in additional states this year through ballot measures and state legislation.

While marijuana reform advocates and industry players are breathing a sigh of relief for now, Nebraska and Oklahoma are weighing their options, including refiling the case in a lower federal court.

“Today, the Supreme Court has not held that Colorado’s unconstitutional facilitation of marijuana industrialization is legal, and the Court’s decision does not bar additional challenges to Colorado’s scheme in federal district court,” Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson said in a statement.

Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, an opponent of legalization, nonetheless cheered the Court’s action in letting her state’s law stand unimpeded for now.

“I’m proud of the legal team in my office that successfully defended this complicated case. I continue to believe that this lawsuit was not the way to properly address the challenges posed by legalized marijuana,” she said in a statement. “But the problems are not going away. Although we’ve had victories in several federal lawsuits over the last month, the legal questions surrounding Amendment 64 still require stronger leadership from Washington.”

The Obama administration, in a brief filed in December by Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr., urged the Court to decline the case, while nine former heads of the Drug Enforcement Administration urged the Court to hear it.

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