In a move that could signal a major shift in federal policy towards medical marijuana, the U.S. Justice Department said it would not challenge state laws that allow for the medical or recreational use of marijuana, as long as they do not conflict with new federal enforcement guidelines.
In a letter sent to U.S. attorneys nationwide, Deputy Attorney General James Cole said the agency would not strictly enforce federal marijuana laws in the 20 states and the District of Columbia that allow medical marijuana use, provided there is “strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems” at the local level.
The new guidelines do not change marijuana’s classification as an illegal drug.
Attorney General Eric Holder also called the governors of Colorado and Washington, where recreational use of marijuana was approved by voters, and said the Department of Justice would take a “trust but verify approach” allowing the states to implement ballot initiatives that legalized the use of marijuana.
“Today’s announcement is a major and historic step toward ending marijuana prohibition. 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,” said Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, the nation’s largest marijuana policy organization.
“We applaud the Department of Justice and other federal agencies for its thoughtful approach and sensible decision. 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.”
“This is a historic step forward,” said Erik Altieri, Communications Director for NORML, a pro-marijuana group.
“Assuming the Department of Justice stays true to their word, these states and others will no doubt move forward with the state-licensed regulation of cannabis for adults. The public has evolved beyond the simplistic, failed policies of cannabis prohibition and are seeking pragmatic, regulatory alternatives. It is encouraging to see that the federal government no longer intends to stand in their way.”
The letter to federal prosecutors outlines eight scenarios that would trigger federal enforcement of marijuana laws:
- The distribution of marijuana to minors.
- Revenue from marijuana sales going to criminal enterprises.
- Diversion of marijuana from states where it is legal to states where it is illegal.
- Marijuana sales being used as a cover for the trafficking of other illegal drugs or criminal activity.
- Violence and the use of firearms in the cultivation and distribution of marijuana.
- Drugged driving and other adverse public health consequences associated with marijuana use.
- Growing of marijuana on public lands.
- Preventing marijuana possession or use on federal property.
The Obama Justice Department had already instructed federal prosecutors not to focus federal resources on individuals who comply with state laws regarding the use of medical marijuana. But U.S. attorneys in several states ignored the memo, shutting down hundreds of medical marijuana clinics nationwide.