Definition of the STATES Act

The Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act was a bill introduced in June of 2018 which would ensure that every individual state may make its own determination regarding the best legal approach to marijuana within its borders. The bill was introduced by Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Cory Gardner (R-CO) alongside a companion bill in the House of Representatives. Specifically, the STATES Act amends the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 in order to protect individuals and businesses acting in compliance with state regulations regarding cannabis from federal enforcement.

Origins of the STATES Act

During the Obama administration, the Justice Department issued guidance to encourage prosecutors to take a light approach toward federal marijuana law enforcement in those states across the country in which cannabis was legal. This guidance attempted to bridge the legal gap between states that had moved to legalize the substance via legislation or citizen initiative and the continued non-legal status of various marijuana-related substances on a federal level. However, in January of 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded those guidelines. In doing so, Sessions' Justice Department placed businesses and individuals operating in the cannabis industry within states' legal frameworks at risk of federal prosecution.

The STATES Act does not move to legalize cannabis on a federal level. Rather, it recognizes that dozens of individual states have passed separate legislation to decriminalize and/or legalize the substance to varying degrees. The bill, designed as a bi-partisan effort, amends the Controlled Substances Act so that the provisions of the Act do not apply to persons acting in compliance with either state or tribal laws related to marijuana manufacturing, production, possession, administration, or delivery, among other things. The STATES Act maintains several aspects of the Controlled Substances Act, including a prohibition on the employment of persons under age 18 in cannabis operations and the sale of marijuana to those under age 21 except for medical purposes. Further, the STATES Act goes beyond recognizing just those states which have moved to legalize cannabis; it also extends protections to Washington D.C., U.S. territories and federally-recognized tribes that have done the same or may do the same in the future.

After Sen. Warren introduced the bill in the U.S. Senate, it was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee for further consideration. Sen. Gardner later made an effort to attach the bill as an amendment to the FIRST STEP Act during debates in December of 2018, while the 115th Congress was in lame-duck sessions. However, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked this effort through a procedural maneuver. As of February, 2019, the bill has not received a vote.