Democrats did a press release victory lap Thursday, after the Justice Department announced it would not challenge marijuana legalization laws in states — just as long as those states establish “regulatory schemes” and focus on certain “enforcement priorities.”
Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole issued a memo Thursday stating that “in light of state ballot initiatives that legalize under state law the possession of small amounts of marijuana,” the Justice Department would be “deferring its right to challenge their legalization laws at this time.”
Colorado and Washington sidestepped Congress and legalized possession of small amounts of pot through ballot initiatives in November, and the DOJ has been weighing whether it would sue the states to enforce federal drug laws, namely the 1970 Controlled Substances Act.
Marijuana laws have recently come under renewed congressional scrutiny. The White House last week fielded questions on federal marijuana policies and Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., announced Monday that his panel will hold a hearing on marijuana policies.
On Thursday, Leahy cheered the new DOJ guidance, saying it has been “long awaited and in short supply.”
“I welcome the fact that the Justice Department has now provided this direction as we near the Judiciary Committee’s hearing on the variation between state and federal marijuana laws,” Leahy said in a release. He said the Justice Department “should focus on countering and prosecuting violent crime, while respecting the will of the states whose people have voted to legalize small amounts of marijuana for personal and medical use.”
Democrats from Washington and Colorado also issued press releases Thursday touting the decision.
Rep. Adam Smith of Washington said he was “pleased” to see the new guidance, while fellow Evergreen State Rep. Jim McDermott said he was “happy to hear” the news.
“I applaud the Department of Justice today for issuing a policy on marijuana enforcement that honors the will of the voters of the state of Colorado,” said Diana DeGette, D-Colo.
Another Colorado Democrat, Rep. Jared Polis, issued a press release that said he was “thrilled” by the decision.
But not all Colorado Democrats were so ecstatic.
“This memo does not address the conflicts that still remain between federal and state laws governing access to banking and financial services,” wrote Rep. Ed Perlmutter, who went on to push for his Marijuana Businesses Access to Banking Act.
Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., also took a more muted approach.
“While this announcement provides helpful guidance and demonstrates strong federal and state collaboration, we must acknowledge that many complexities and challenges still lie ahead,” he said in a press release.
The four-page document addressed to all U.S. attorneys, which was released Thursday, outlines certain principles by which any state that legalizes small quantities of marijuana must still abide.
The “enforcement priorities that are particularly important to the federal government” include: preventing the distribution of marijuana to minors; preventing revenue from the sale of marijuana from going to criminal enterprises, gangs and cartels; preventing the diversion of marijuana from states where it is legal under state law in some form to other states; preventing state-authorized marijuana activity from being used as a cover or pretext for the trafficking of other illegal drugs or other illegal activity; preventing violence and the use of firearms in the cultivation and distribution of marijuana; preventing drugged driving and the exacerbation of other adverse public health consequences associated with marijuana use; preventing growing of marijuana on public lands and the attendant public safety and environmental dangers posed by marijuana production on public lands; and preventing marijuana possession or use on federal property.
As long as those principles are enforced, the memo suggests, states have flexibility in drawing up and enforcing their own marijuana laws. That is a change that had marijuana advocates cheering on Thursday.
“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 the chairman of Marijuana Majority, Tom Angell. “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.”
The DOJ memo instructs prosecutors that they “should not consider the size or commercial nature of a marijuana operation alone as a proxy for assessing whether marijuana trafficking implicates the Department’s enforcement priorities.”
Angell said it was “significant” that U.S. attorneys would no longer be able to use the size or profitability of a legal marijuana business to determine whether or not it should be a target for prosecution, but he said the guidelines “seem to leave some leeway for the feds to continue making it hard for state-legal marijuana providers to do business.”