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Case Could Jeopardize Washington State Recreational Pot Law

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Today, a court hears a case that confronts a contradiction between state and federal laws. Colorado and Washington state have legalized marijuana. The federal government has not. Some cities don't like legal pot either. And the court case challenges the reach of state law. Here's Gabriel Spitzer of our member station KPLU.

GABRIEL SPITZER, BYLINE: The legal challenge isn't coming from Congress or the Justice Department. it's coming from a tiny, unpretentious suburb known mostly for its car dealerships. Loren Combs is the city attorney.

LOREN COMBS: We're not trying to change the world. We're just trying to regulate and uphold the laws within the city of Fife, which applies to five square miles in Pierce County, Washington.

SPITZER: Fife wants to ban state-licensed marijuana stores and growers from its city limits. A handful of pot businesses sued Fife, saying it has no right to opt out of the state law. Fife hit back arguing two things. One - state law, itself, lets them opt out. And if that fails, there's this - Combs says the marijuana law contradicts federal law.

COMBS: Winning on either of them works for us, so I don't care what legal theory works.

SPITZER: But that federal argument puts the whole project of regulating legal pot at risk, says Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

BOB FERGUSON: I don't think a lot of folks, frankly, in our state realize that the lawsuit has the potential to essentially eviscerate Initiative 502 that legalized marijuana in Washington state.

SPITZER: It might seem obvious that federal law wins. You may remember the Supremacy Clause from civics class which says, well, that federal law wins. But Alison Holcomb of the ACLU says it's not that simple.

ALISON HOLCOMB: How we use our police powers is something that's always been left to the states. So we don't have to walk lockstep when it comes to marijuana laws. We have a lot more latitude than people realize.

SPITZER: Holcomb was the marijuana law's lead author. She says dozens of states have loosened their pot laws, and none has been successfully preempted. For NPR News, I'm Gabriel Spitzer in Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gabriel Spitzer
Gabriel Spitzer (he/him) is Senior Editor of Short Wave, NPR's daily science podcast. He comes to NPR following years of experience at Member stations – most recently at KNKX in Seattle, where he covered science and health and then co-founded and hosted the weekly show Sound Effect. That show told character-driven stories of the region's people. When the Pacific Northwest became the first place in the U.S. hit by COVID-19, the show switched gears and relaunched as Transmission, one of the country's first podcasts about the pandemic.