The Department of Justice announced Thursday it will not block recreational marijuana stores from opening next year in Colorado and Washington state. Voters in the two states elected to legalize the drug in November 2012, but marijuana advocates and state officials have anxiously awaited federal guidance ever since.
The Justice Department said in a release it will allow the stores to open, but that it expects state regulations to be "tough in practice, not just on paper, and include strong, state-based enforcement efforts, backed by adequate funding."
Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, the Justice Department stressed. A memo attributed to Deputy Attorney General James Cole said federal prosecutors would prosecute individuals if any of the following "enforcement priorities" are tripped:
- 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 to states where it remains illegal
- state-authorized marijuana activity being used as a cover for trafficking other illegal drugs or activity
- violence or the use of firearms as part of cultivation and distribution of marijuana
- drugged driving or the exacerbation of other negative health consequences associated with marijuana use
- growing marijuana on public lands
- marijuana possession or use on federal property
"Outside of these enforcement priorities, the federal government has traditionally relied on states and local law enforcement agencies," Cole's memo said. "[But] if state enforcement efforts are not sufficiently robust to protect against the harms set forth above the federal government may seek to challenge the regulatory structure itself."
The memo released Thursday said strict state regulations may "allay the threat that an operation's size poses to federal enforcement interests." This differs from a previous memo from Cole, issued in 2011, that said federal prosecutors should be concerned with medicinal dispensaries that have "revenue projections of millions of dollars."
Alison Holcomb, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union who authored Washington state's legalization initiative, told U.S. News in July that the state law was written with minimizing federal concerns in mind. Similarly, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis told U.S News earlier this month, Colorado's state regulation should appease federal authorities. Unlike other states with legal medical marijuana, he pointed out, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration hadn't targeted Colorado clinics.
Marijuana advocates were predictably pleased with the Justice Department guidance.
"Today's announcement is a major and historic step toward ending marijuana prohibition," said Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project. "The Department of Justice's decision to allow implementation of the laws in Colorado and Washington is a clear signal that states are free to determine their own policies with respect to marijuana."
Retired Seattle police chief Norm Stamper, an advisory board member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, also celebrated the announcement.
"Allowing states to legalize and regulate marijuana will funnel millions of dollars of profits from the criminal organizations that have controlled the trade into the hands of legitimate businesses that check IDs and create jobs and badly needed tax revenues," Stamper said in a statement.
Marijuana Majority Chairman Tom Angell, formerly a spokesman for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, offered a more tepid appraisal.
"It's nice to hear that the Obama administration doesn't at this point intend to file a lawsuit to overturn the will of the voters in states that have opted to modernize their marijuana policies, but it remains to be seen how individual U.S. attorneys will interpret the new guidance and whether they will continue their efforts to close down marijuana businesses that are operating in accordance with state law," Angell said.