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Neighboring States Challenge Colorado's Recreational Marijuana Law


Colorado is vowing to fight a lawsuit filed by attorneys general in two neighboring states over the legalization of recreational marijuana. Law enforcement officials in Oklahoma and Nebraska say they have seen a sharp jump in illegal marijuana trafficking since Colorado's law went into effect this year. And they want their case to go to the U.S. Supreme Court. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: As Nebraska's Attorney General Jon Bruning sees it, this case is simple. Colorado's law legalizing recreational marijuana is in direct conflict with federal law. And under the supremacy clause, federal law rules.


JON BRUNING: So you have people right now making it, selling it, smoking it - all in violation of federal law. And our federal government and the Department of Justice is looking the other way.

SIEGLER: Bruning and his counterpart, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene. Their lawsuit says Colorado's law is devoid of safeguards to ensure that marijuana that's cultivated and sold legally in Colorado stays in Colorado.


SCOTT PRUITT: This contraband has been heavily trafficked into our state. While Colorado reaps millions from the production and sale of pot, Nebraska taxpayers have to bear the cost.

SIEGLER: Now, the lawsuit doesn't quantify what those costs are to date. A lot here is anecdotal. But take the experience of the small city of Sidney, Nebraska, along Interstate 80, about 170 miles northeast of Denver. Police Chief B.J. Wilkinson says since Colorado's law went into effect, he's seen a 50 percent increase in marijuana-related cases.

BJ WILKINSON: You know, I've got to pay officers to go to court. I've got to pay officers to process scenes. Sometimes they develop into more extensive search warrant opportunities, and so those require more resources.

SIEGLER: Now, Wilkinson only has 12 police officers on his force, but there's a bigger issue at play here. The chief isn't happy with what he says has been a noticeable spike in marijuana use in his community ever since it became legal for recreational purposes in Colorado.

WILKINSON: They'll tell us hey, you know, we went across the border and we bought some. We've used in the past, but now we can buy it legally.

SIEGLER: Colorado officials have expressed similar concerns about a rise in illegal trafficking since their law went into effect. In an interview with NPR, earlier this month in fact, Colorado's Attorney General John Suthers said there aren't tight enough controls to prevent what he calls diversions onto the black market.


JOHN SUTHERS: I think it's pretty safe to say that we are becoming a major exporter of marijuana.

SIEGLER: But Suthers, a Republican who's leaving office this month, says he's planning to vigorously defend Colorado in the case. At this point, it's unclear what exactly that defense will be. Suthers has only issued a brief statement saying he wasn't surprised by the lawsuit, but, quote, "it appears the plaintiff's primary grievance stems from non-enforcement of federal laws regarding marijuana as opposed to choices made by the voters of Colorado." Mason Tvert helped write Colorado's recreational marijuana law.

MASON TVERT: Marijuana has been moving throughout the country, including from Colorado to these other states, for years. And what's the alternative here? Either we can let Colorado control the vast majority of its marijuana production and distribution, or we can go back to having no control.

SIEGLER: The Supreme Court has not said whether it will even consider the case yet. Kirk Siegler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.
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