DOJ to states with legal pot: Smoke ’em if you got ’em

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Greg Campbell Contributor
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The U.S. Department of Justice is taking a hands-off approach to laws in Colorado and Washington that legalize the possession, cultivation and regulated sale of marijuana.

But the agency warned it would enforce federal laws prohibiting marijuana if the drug isn’t rigorously regulated by the states.

“For states such as Colorado and Washington that have enacted laws to authorize the production, distribution and possession of marijuana, the Department expects these states to establish strict regulatory schemes that protect the eight federal interests identified in the Department’s guidance,” according to a press release posted on the agency’s website Thursday.

“These schemes must be tough in practice, not just on paper, and include strong, state-based enforcement efforts, backed by adequate funding,” it continued.

“Based on assurances that those states will impose an appropriately strict regulatory system, the Department has informed the governors of both states that it is deferring its right to challenge their legalization laws at this time.”

The eight “federal interests” are outlined in a guidance memo sent by Deputy Attorney General James Cole to all U.S. Attorneys. They include keeping pot away from minors, preventing revenue from going to drug cartels and gangs, preventing smuggling to non-legalized states and preventing pot use or possession on federal property, among other priorities.

Marijuana advocates are ecstatic.

“Today’s announcement is a major and historic step toward ending marijuana prohibition,” said Dan Riffle, the director of federal policy for the Marijuana Policy Project, in a statement. “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.”

“We applaud the Department of Justice and other federal agencies for its thoughtful approach and sensible decision,” he continued. “It is time for the federal government to start working with state officials to develop enforcement policies that respect state voters, as well as federal interests. The next step is for Congress to act. We need to fix our nation’s broken marijuana laws and not just continue to work around them.”

Cole’s memo reiterated the there has been no official change in marijuana’s status as a Schedule I drug under the federal Controlled Substances Act. Therefore, possession, cultivation, sale and distribution for any reason remain illegal under federal law.

“[F]ederal prosecutors will continue to aggressively enforce this statute,” the DOJ press release warns.

Some marijuana advocates are taking the news with a dose of caution, noting that individual prosecutors have ignored previous guidance memos to go easy on medical marijuana businesses operating in compliance with state laws.

“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,” said Tom Angell, the chairman of Marijuana Majority, in a statement, “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.”

“[B]ut the guidelines seem to leave some leeway for the feds to continue making it hard for state-legal marijuana providers to do business,” he added.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who campaigned against the legalization initiative, Amendment 64, said in a statement that he “recognize[d] how difficult this issue has been for the Department of Justice and we appreciate the thoughtful approach it has taken.”

“Amendment 64 put Colorado in conflict with federal law,” he said. “Today’s announcement shows the federal government is respecting the will of Colorado voters.”

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