The Supreme Court Just Rejected a Lawsuit That Could Have Derailed Weed Legalization

The Supreme Court declined to hear a lawsuit filed by Nebraska and Oklahoma against Colorado over the state's legalization and regulation of marijuana.
March 21, 2016, 4:45pm
Imagen por Mario Guzman/EPA

America's legal weed consumers and entrepreneurs exhaled a sigh of relief Monday morning after the Supreme Court rejected a lawsuit filed by Nebraska and Oklahoma against Colorado over the state's legalization and regulation of marijuana.

The court declined to hear the case, which claimed that Colorado's legal weed is being smuggled across state lines to Nebraska and Oklahoma, where the drug remains illegal under both state and federal law. The two states contended that the spillover is overburdening local law enforcement, and sought to do away with the regulatory system Colorado has created to tax and control recreational pot sales.

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By declining to take the case, the Supreme Court did not set any precedent but effectively allowed the legal weed status quo to continue unchanged. If the justices had opted to take the case, they could have potentially issued a ruling that would have struck down medical and recreational marijuana laws in 23 states and Washington, DC. They could have also upheld Colorado's system, allowing marijuana legalization to continue on firmer legal ground.

Related: Pot Tourists in Colorado Are Getting Too High and Ending Up in the ER

"This case, if it went forward and the court ruled the wrong way, had the potential to roll back many of the gains our movement has achieved to date," Tom Angell, founder of the advocacy group Marijuana Majority, said in a statement. "The justices correctly decided this lawsuit is without merit and that states should be able to move forward with implementing voter-approved legalization laws even if their neighbors don't like it."

Colorado argued that the Supreme Court was not the proper place to resolve the lawsuit, which sought to use the court's power of "original jurisdiction," in which the justices hear disputes between states that are not first reviewed by lower courts. Two conservative justices, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, said they would have heard the case, with Thomas writing in his dissent that the court was obligated to hear the case.

"The plaintiff states have alleged significant harms to their sovereign interests caused by another state," Thomas wrote. "Whatever the merit of the plaintiff States' claims, we should let this complaint proceed further rather than denying leave without so much as a word of explanation."

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Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. filed a brief in December on behalf of the Obama administration that urged the court to decline to hear the case.

The recent death of Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative who was widely expected to oppose marijuana legalization, had the potential to complicate the case if the court had decided to take it. If the shorthanded court had ended up deadlocked 4-4, the situation would have been virtually unprecedented, with no lower court ruling on which to fall back and no playbook for what would have happened next. Instead, by rejecting the case, the justices essentially side-stepped the issue.

Related: Scalia's Death Clouds US Supreme Court Decision on Colorado's Legal Weed

A number of states — including California, Nevada, and Arizona — are expected to vote on legal weed initiatives in 2016, and marijuana is projected to become a $22 billion industry by 2020.

The justices could still hear the claim again at a later date if Nebraska and Oklahoma decide to sue Colorado again in a lower court and the case works its way back to the Supreme Court through the appeals process. That could take years, however, and Angell and other marijuana advocates are now hoping that Nebraska and Oklahoma will decide to embrace legalization rather than fight it.

"At the end of the day," Angell said, "if officials in Nebraska and Oklahoma are upset about how much time and resources their police are spending on marijuana cases, as they said in their briefs, they should join Colorado in replacing prohibition with legalization."

Follow Keegan Hamilton on Twitter: @keegan_hamilton

Watch the VICE News documentary Inside America's Billion-Dollar Weed Business: The Grass Is Greener