The Justice Department on Thursday said it won’t stop Colorado and Washington from implementing laws legalizing marijuana for recreational use, paving the way for states nationwide to enact pro-pot measures.
The move was part of a sweeping national policy statement issued by the agency that outlines its top priorities for marijuana enforcement. Those priorities include preventing the distribution of marijuana to minors, preventing sales revenue from going to criminal enterprises, gangs and cartels, and preventing the diversion of marijuana outside of states where it is legal under state law.
But as long as states maintain strict rules regarding distribution of the drug, the Justice Department suggested it won’t challenge state laws that allow for small-scale personal marijuana use.
“Outside of those enforcement priorities, the federal government has traditionally relied on states and local law enforcement agencies to address marijuana activity through enforcement of their own laws,” said a Justice Department memo to U.S. attorneys in all 50 states.
“The department’s guidance [to states] 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 cld pose to public safety.”
Residents in Colorado and Washington last year voted to legalize small amounts of marijuana for personal use — the first states to do so. The move prompted Attorney General Eric Holder to order a review of whether the Justice Department should sue states from operating marijuana markets on the grounds it conflicted with federal drug laws.
The White House has said prosecution of drug traffickers remains an important priority. But President Obama has said it doesn’t make much sense for the federal government to target small-scale recreational pot users in states that have legalized the drug’s recreational use.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who since last year has pressed the administration to clarify its enforcement policy for states allowing marijuana use, praised the Justice Department for its decision.
“With federal and state policies in conflict, guidance for states and for the law enforcement community has been long awaited and in short supply,” Leahy said. “I welcome the fact that the Justice Department has now provided this direction.”
Leahy, who on Monday invited Holder to testify before his panel next month to discuss ways to resolve conflicts between state and federal marijuana laws, said the hearing still will take place.
Ezekiel Edwards, director of the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project, said the Justice Department’s new guidance “is one more concrete step towards more sensible drug policy in this country.”
Alaska is scheduled to vote on legalizing recreational use of marijuana next year, and a few other states are planning similar votes in 2016.
But Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee and co-chairman of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, said the Justice Department's decision "sends the wrong message to both law enforcement and violators of federal law."
"Time and again we have seen the Obama administration decline to enforce laws that it finds inconvenient, or that it simply doesn’t like. Today’s announcement is the latest example," Grassley said.
"The administration is now effectively instructing law enforcement not to prioritize the prosecution of the large-scale distribution and sale of marijuana in certain states."