Crime, Laws, and Legalization: Perceptions of Colorado Marijuana Dispensary Owners and Managers

Published date01 February 2019
Date01 February 2019
Subject MatterArticles
Criminal Justice Policy Review
2019, Vol. 30(1) 28 –51
© The Author(s) 2017
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0887403417721606
Crime, Laws, and
Legalization: Perceptions
of Colorado Marijuana
Dispensary Owners and
Kyle C. Ward1, Andrew J. Thompson1,
Brian M. Iannacchione1, and Mary K. Evans1
The legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado has complicated the
relationships between local, state, and federal governments. Such challenges have
trickled down to proprietors, managers, and employees within the new billion-dollar
industry. Dispensary owners and managers often must navigate the implementation
of new laws and policies in how they operate their business. The current study
surveyed marijuana dispensaries across Colorado to explore owners’ and managers’
perceptions of operating their business while considering federal banking laws and
concerns with state laws conflicting with federal laws, particularly in context of the
2016 presidential election.
marijuana legalization, drug policy, federalism, perceptions
The doctrine of federal preemption of state law is based on the U.S. Constitution’s
Supremacy Clause, which generally gives Congress the power to preempt state law.
Essentially, this doctrine states that when state and federal laws directly conflict, fed-
eral laws can take precedence over state law. Sometimes the federal government inter-
venes and sometimes it does not, which can result in challenges to those states that
1University of Northern Colorado, Greeley, CO, USA
Corresponding Author:
Kyle C. Ward, Assistant Professor, Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of
Northern Colorado, Campus Box 147, Greeley, CO 80639, USA.
721606CJPXXX10.1177/0887403417721606Criminal Justice Policy ReviewWard et al.
Ward et al. 29
pass laws that contradict federal law. For instance, the Support Our Law Enforcement
and Safe Neighborhood Act is one example where the Justice Department enforced the
supremacy clause by suing Arizona (Arizona et al. v. United States, 567 U.S., 2012)
because immigration law is federally enforced and not a state issue. On the contrary,
prostitution in parts of Nevada is legalized and highly regulated but the federal gov-
ernment has not enforced the doctrine of preemption even though prostitution violates
federal law.
A current test for the federal government will be how they choose to enforce the
contradiction between the federal and state laws surrounding the legalization of mari-
juana at the state level. Under federal law, the sale, use, and distribution of marijuana
for any purpose are illegal. Despite federal law, Colorado was the first state in the
United States to permit the use, sale, and distribution of marijuana for recreational use,
which is subject to strict regulations. Yet, debate continues regarding the constitutional
questions surrounding state-enacted marijuana laws by legal scholars (Chemerinsky,
Forman, Hopper, & Kamin, 2015; Mikos, 2009). For now, federal officials are choos-
ing not to enforce federal law in Colorado, but that could change under the new admin-
istration and cause further challenges to marijuana compliance with regulations
imposed by the state and restrictions by the federal government.
The 2012 referendum to legalize marijuana in Colorado ushered in a new billion-
dollar industry within the state (Baca, 2016). Although becoming legal at the state
level, the use, cultivation, and sale of marijuana remains federally illegal because of
the Schedule I drug status of marijuana. The incompatibility of federal and state law
has generated much confusion among affected institutions and agencies involved in
the regulation and oversight of the marijuana industry. The uncertainty that state offi-
cials (e.g., legislatures, courts, and executive officials) encountered in determining
how to enforce these laws prior to the implementation of recreational marijuana mar-
kets in Colorado and Washington led Schwartz (2013) to dub the situation a “federal-
ism crisis.” Although the connotation of crisis may be an exaggeration in describing
the situation, substantial issues of federalism continue to permeate in the context of
marijuana legalization. For example, although the federal government and the govern-
ments of states with legal marijuana industries have established a state of affairs that
allows these businesses to function relatively unimpeded, they are not comprehensive
and potentially temporary solutions to the federalism dispute. Rather, the failure to
convincingly define the authority of state and federal governments over the legal sta-
tus of marijuana presents the potential for the federal government to attempt a disman-
tling of states’ marijuana markets if a presidential administration chose to do so.
Beyond being a fundamental issue between states’ rights and the power of the fed-
eral government, the federalism dispute creates practical challenges for those operat-
ing what the authors call a federally illicit, state sanctioned (FISS) business. This term
refers to the fact that dispensaries, though operating legally at the state level, are in
defiance of federal law. This may be attributed to the fact that it is not just state offi-
cials who were or are continuously tasked with resolving the disagreements between
state and federal legislation. Financial institutions, such as the Federal Deposit
Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) have had to

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