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Feds Won't Interfere With Marijuana Legalization in Colorado and Washington

This unprecedented decision steers federal priority away from the longstanding, reactionary U.S. war on drugs.
 
 
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U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder made a historic move Thursday, August 29 when he informed the governors of Colorado and Washington that the federal government would not interfere with their states' laws allowing for the legal use of marijuana.

For years federal agents have stormed and raided marijuana dispensaries in states like California where medical use has been legal for decades, but this unprecedented decision steers federal priority away from the longstanding, reactionary U.S. war on drugs.

In last November's election Colorado and Washington voters chose to legalize marijuana use for adults in their states. The legalization of pot blatantly contradicts the federal government’s classification of marijuana as an illegal Schedule I substance “considered the most dangerous class of drugs with a high potential for abuse and potentially severe psychological and/or physical dependence.”

In response to the states' ballot results, President Obama told ABC News’s Barbara Walters in December that his administration had "bigger fish to fry" and would not prioritize recreational pot smokers in states where it is legal. The Washington Post reported that the Justice Department and White House Office of National Drug Control Policy "had remained silent" about the Colorado and Washington marijuana initiatives until Thursday "despite repeated requests for guidance from state officials."

Holder's announcement means the Department of Justice will not sue the states over their regulation and implementation of their marijuana ballot initiatives. In addition to Holder's news, Deputy Attorney General James Cole released a memo addressed to U.S. attorneys in all 50 states. The memo reads:

"The Department's guidance in this memorandum rests on its expectation that states and local governments that have enacted laws authorizing marijuana-related conduct will implement strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems that will address the threat those state laws could pose to public safety, public health and other law enforcement interests. A system adequate to that task must not only contain robust controls and procedures on paper; it must also be effective in practice."

As the Huffington Post reported, Cole’s memo also outlines “eight priorities for federal prosecutors enforcing marijuana laws. According to the guidance, DOJ will still prosecute individuals or entities to prevent:

  • the distribution of marijuana to minors;

  • revenue from the sale of marijuana from going to criminal enterprises, gangs and cartels;

  • the diversion of marijuana from states where it is legal under state law in some form to other states;

  • state-authorized marijuana activity from being used as a cover or pretext for the trafficking of other illegal drugs or other illegal activity;

  • violence and the use of firearms in the cultivation and distribution of marijuana

  • drugged driving and the exacerbation of other adverse public health consequences associated with marijuana use;

  • growing of marijuana on public lands and the attendant public safety and environmental dangers posed by marijuana production on public lands;

  • preventing marijuana possession or use on federal property.”

According to the memo, U.S. attorneys are personally responsible for interpreting and applying the guidelines, but the guidance is not optional.  

The Huffington Post reported that one Justice Department official said for example, "a U.S Attorney could go after marijuana distributors who used cartoon characters in their marketing because that could be interpreted as attempting to distribute marijuana to minors."

The official also told the Huffington Post that "prosecutors would no longer be allowed to use the sheer volume of sales or the for-profit status of an operation as triggers for prosecution, though these factors could still affect their prosecutorial decisions."

Given the U.S. government's historically unyielding stance on marijuana, the decision comes as a surprise. The Washington Postreported in November that Colorado and Washington states’ decision to legalize pot had the federal government “wrestling with policy,” and sources in the article predicted the DOJ “would most likely prevent the laws from going into effect by announcing that federal law preempts the state initiatives, which would make marijuana legal for recreational use.”

The Washington Postalso reported via a Justice Department official that Holder told Colorado and Washington governors federal prosecutors would be “watching closely” as the states put their regulatory framework into place, “and that prosecutors would be taking a ‘trust but verify’ approach. The official said the Justice Department reserves the right to revisit the issue.”

April M. Short is an associate editor at AlterNet. Follow her on Twitter @AprilMShort.