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Federal government will likely try to block marijuana law, expert says

Now that voters have legalized recreational marijuana in Washington state, the question is whether the federal government will sue to block it. One legal expert says he expects a court challenge.

Washington’s initiative 502 doesn’t just legalize possession of small quantities of marijuana. It sets up a system for licensing cultivation and sale of the drug and then imposes a tax system. Sam Kamin is a professor of law at the University of Denver. He says he thinks the federal government will determine that Washington’s law is going too far and will challenge it in court.

"The federal government has been tolerant of marijuana when it’s been under the guise of medicine, when it’s been relatively limited, but to move from those people who have a doctor’s recommendation for marijuana to all adults over the age of 21 is just an enormous growth in the industry," Kamin said.

Kamin says the federal government could sue to block Washington’s marijuana law on the basis of pre-emption. That’s the legal doctrine that federal law trumps state law.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Seattle said in a statement that the Controlled Substances Act remains in effect. The justice department is reviewing the ballot initiative and had no additional comment.

Initiative sponsor Alison Holcomb has said the core of the measure – possession of marijuana – would likely escape a federal challenge.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.