Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt (Sue Ogrocki, The Associated Press)

Oklahoma lawmakers to AG Pruitt: Drop the Colorado marijuana lawsuit

A number of Oklahoma lawmakers are asking the state’s attorney general to drop his lawsuit against Colorado — and the state representatives and senators are saying they might join Colorado as defendants in the suit if the U.S. Supreme Court takes the case.

“This is not about the legalization of marijuana,” said Mike Ritze, the state representative in Oklahoma’s 80th District who wrote a stern, three-page letter to the state’s Attorney General Scott Pruitt. “It’s about states’ rights.”

Oklahoma’s lawsuit, which was filed with Nebraska as co-plaintiff, argues that “the State of Colorado has created a dangerous gap in the federal drug control system.” The two states filed the lawsuit in mid-December with the U.S. Supreme Court, claiming that “marijuana flows from this gap into neighboring states, undermining Plaintiff States’ own marijuana bans, draining their treasuries, and placing stress on their criminal justice systems.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has not responded to the lawsuit, and it might be years before it accepts or turns down the motion.

Ritze, who chairs the Oklahoma House’s public health committee and is a state-certified surgeon and physician, delivered the letter to Pruitt’s office on New Year’s Eve with the signatures of six other state lawmakers. His co-signers include Oklahoma state representatives Lewis Moore, John Bennett, Mike Christian and Dan Fisher and state senators Ralph Shortey and Nathan Dahm.

The letter said Oklahoma’s “lawsuit against Colorado is the wrong way to deal with the issue” primarily because of its potential implications “for states’ rights, the Tenth Amendment and the ability of states and citizens to govern themselves as they see fit.”

Pruitt responded to Ritze’s claims by saying Oklahoma and Nebraska’s lawsuit only challenges a “portion” of Colorado’s law and that he “will immediately terminate the lawsuit” if states’ rights are ever at risk.

“The representative is right to be concerned about any effort by a state to challenge the authority of another state to legalize marijuana within its own borders,” Pruitt told The Cannabist via email. “I appreciate his concern, and I agree with him. However, Oklahoma’s lawsuit does not challenge in any manner or form Colorado’s legalization of marijuana for use and possession for intrastate purposes.

“Rather, we are challenging only that portion of Colorado’s law that does invoke our states’ rights: the interstate trafficking of an illegal drug under Oklahoma law. We will continue to work with the representative and others to ensure this critical distinction is communicated so as to hopefully address any confusion over the lawsuit’s objectives. As a strong advocate for states’ rights, I can assure the representative that if at any time our lawsuit risks impairment of any states’ rights under the constitution, I will immediately terminate the lawsuit.”

Pruitt finished by asking Ritze and his colleagues for an alternate solution.

“In the meantime, I would ask the representative, what should the state do to protect the policy decision it has made? I would welcome a legislative response to protect our state’s interest and hope perhaps that the representative and his colleagues can craft a solution that eliminates our need to resort to the courts.”

Ritze said a wide-ranging conversation with representatives from Oklahoma and Colorado, not to mention a statistical analysis of the impact of their neighbor’s legal weed, would be a good place to start.

“The first thing we should do: Sit down and talk,” said Ritze. “Do we really have a problem? We polled our state narcotics bureau and the highway patrol and the people in narcotics interdiction, and none of them said the Attorney General had asked them about (the issue). We’re searching for a non-problem. I’m looking at data, and it’s not there.”

An examination of the text of the lawsuit does show a surprising lack of statistical data and hard numbers backing up Oklahoma and Nebraska’s claims that Colorado’s legal marijuana is “draining their treasuries.”

While Ritze and his colleagues have real issues with the lawsuit, don’t mistake their position as being pro-cannabis legalization.

“We’re opposed to the legalization of marijuana, and we think Colorado made a bad decision in legalizing it,” Ritze clarified. “But after reading the lawsuit, there were three or four areas that we had deep concerns about, including telling another state what to do when it’s really none of our business.”

Rep. Ritze and AG Pruitt hail from the same Oklahoma town of Broken Arrow, Ritze said.

“I know him very well,” said Ritze. “He was my state senator, and I was his state representative.”

But Ritze’s request for a meeting with Pruitt resulted in a meeting with the AG’s chief deputy. Ritze’s letter begins, “While regrettably we were unable to meet with you …” Ultimately Ritze and his co-signers are asking Pruitt “to quietly drop the action against Colorado, and if necessary, defend the state’s right to set its own policies, as we would hope other states would defend our right to govern ourselves within constitutional confines,” his letter reads.

“We also do not feel that attempting to undermine the sovereignty of a neighboring state using the federal courts, even if inadvertently, is a wise use of Oklahoma’s limited state resources.”

If the lawsuit ever reaches the U.S. Supreme Court, Ritze and his colleagues would consider joining Colorado as individual defendants, Ritze said.

“We’d go in and defend the lawsuit with Colorado,” said Ritze. “It would be us as individuals. That’s a long-distance option, but it is something that will be considered.”

The action of filing an amicus brief — a court filing by someone not related to the case — is something Ritze’s constituents brought up, he said in his letter to Pruitt.

“If the lawsuit is eventually heard by the Supreme Court, many of our constituents want us to consider filing an amicus brief on behalf of Colorado — not because they do not believe dangerous drugs should be considered a crime, but because our own states’ rights would be put in jeopardy by an unfavorable ruling,” the letter reads.

If the Supreme Court chooses to hear Pruitt’s case, it could set a potentially dangerous precedent, Ritze said.

“We can’t tell Colorado what to do even though we disagree with their law,” Ritze said, “just like Colorado can’t tell us what to do if we try and export guns or other things.”

Ritze letter to AG Pruitt