John Urquhart, sheriff of King County, Wash., testifes during a Senate… (Drew Angerer / Getty Images )
WASHINGTON — In the first congressional hearing on marijuana laws since voters in Colorado and Washington state legalized pot for recreational use in November, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) called for a "smarter approach" to marijuana policy and addressed federal laws that he said impeded effective regulation of the drug in states where it was legal.
The Senate Judiciary Committee's hearing followed a Justice Department memo in late August that said the U.S. would not challenge state laws permitting marijuana and that it would focus enforcement on eight priorities, which include preventing its distribution to minors and keeping revenue away from criminal enterprises.
Although marijuana is illegal under federal law, 20 states, including California, and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medical use.
John Urquhart, the sheriff of King County, Wash., called on the government to allow banks to open accounts for marijuana businesses, which are currently prohibited under a federal law. Cash-only businesses are targets for robberies, he said, and are difficult to audit.
Deputy Atty. Gen. James Cole said the federal government was looking at ways to address the banking issue within existing laws.
Urquhart told the committee that in 37 years as a police officer, "my experience shows the war on drugs has been a failure."
"We have not significantly reduced demand over time," he said, "but we have incarcerated generations of individuals, the highest incarceration rate in the world."
Urquhart said that states and the federal government had shared goals regarding marijuana regulation.
"We all agree we don't want our children using marijuana," he said. "We all agree we don't want impaired drivers. We all agree we don't want to continue enriching criminals. Washington's law honors those values by separating consumers from gangs, and diverting the proceeds from the sale of marijuana toward furthering the goals of public safety."
Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the committee's ranking Republican, raised concerns about the transport of marijuana across state lines, to states like Iowa that have not legalized it. He also cited findings from audits that found problems in Colorado's medical marijuana program, even before the state legalized recreational use.
"Why has the department decided to trust Colorado to effectively regulate recreational marijuana when it is already struggling to regulate medical marijuana?" he asked.
Cole said the federal government aimed to "trust but verify" that states legalizing marijuana create "robust" regulations to address public safety concerns and comply with federal guidelines.
"We're trying to find the best of the imperfect solutions that are before us," Cole said.