In what could be a sea change for federal marijuana policy, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has told the governors of Washington and Colorado – which recently legalized recreational use, in conflict with federal law – that the Justice Department will let them implement their laws.
In addition to Holder’s joint phone call with the two governors Thursday, Deputy Attorney General James Cole has issued a memo to U.S. attorneys across the country outlining priorities for federal prosecutors enforcing marijuana laws – including those in the 20 states including California that have legalized marijuana for medical use.
The memo says federal law enforcement will still prioritize targeting distribution of marijuana to minors; revenue from the sale of marijuana from going to criminal enterprises, gangs and cartels; diversion of marijuana from states where it is legal under state law in some form to other states; use of state-authorized activity as a smokescreen for other illegal activity; violence and use of firearms in the cultivation and distribution of marijuana; drugged driving and other adverse public health consequences; growing marijuana on public lands; and preventing marijuana possession or use on federal property.
But “in jurisdictions that have enacted laws legalizing marijuana in some form and that have also implemented strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems to control the cultivation, distribution, sale and possession of marijuana, conduct in compliance with those laws and regulations is less likely to threaten the federal priorities set forth above,” Cole wrote in the memo.
The memo also says federal prosecutors “should not consider the size or commercial nature of a marijuana operation alone as proxy for assessing whether marijuana trafficking implicates the Department’s enforcement priorities listed above.” Instead, it says, prosecutors should make case-by-case judgments as to whether operations are complying with a state’s regulations.
“Today’s announcement demonstrates the sort of political vision and foresight from the White House we’ve been seeking for a long time,” Drug Policy Alliance Executive Director Ethan Nadelmann said in a news release. “I must admit, I was expecting a yellow light from the White House. But this light looks a lot more green-ish than I had hoped. The White House is basically saying to Washington and Colorado: Proceed with caution.”
Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, issued a statement saying his group is encouraged by the memo.
“At the heart of the guidance is a willingness to respect the voters who have decided a regulated marijuana market is preferable to a criminal market in their states. Cannabis-related businesses in these states are creating thousands of jobs and generating tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue. These are clear public benefits,” Smith said. “Now is not the time to push marijuana sales back under ground. The new voter-approved, regulated systems in Colorado and Washington should be allowed to proceed. We have full confidence the businesses in these states will comply with any requirements put forth by the Department of Justice.”