Seattle's KING 5 News reports that states can now let people use marijuana, license people to grow it and even allow adults to stroll into stores and buy it — as long as the weed is kept away from kids, the black market and federal property.
After 75 years of federal prohibition, new legislation allows states the right to decide whether citizens may use, grow, sell, and buy marijuana. Last fall, Washington and Colorado voted to legalize the drug, and now, the Justice Department has given states the power to oversee both medical and recreational industries, along with adoption of regulatory plans. But in a memo to all U.S. attorney offices, Deputy Attorney General James Cole warned that policy must safeguard public health and safety, saying, "If state enforcement efforts are not sufficiently robust...the federal government may seek to challenge the regulatory structure itself."
"In a memo to all 94 U.S. attorneys' offices around the country, Deputy Attorney General James Cole said the federal government expects that states and local governments authorizing "marijuana-related conduct" will implement strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems that address the threat those state laws could pose to public health and safety.
"If state enforcement efforts are not sufficiently robust ... the federal government may seek to challenge the regulatory structure itself," the memo stated. States must ensure "that they do not undermine federal enforcement priorities," it added.
The U.S. attorney in Colorado, John Walsh, said he will continue to focus on whether Colorado's system has the resources and tools necessary to protect key federal public safety interests.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said the state is working to improve education and prevention efforts directed at young people and on enforcement tools to prevent access to marijuana by those under age 21. Colorado also is determined to keep marijuana businesses from being fronts for criminal enterprises or other illegal activity, he said, and the state is committed to preventing the export of marijuana while also enhancing efforts to keep state roads safe from impaired drivers.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee also laid out guidelines for marijuana entrepreneurs.
"If you don't sell this product to children, if you keep violent crime away from your business, if you pay your taxes and you don't use this as a front for illicit activity, we're going to be able to move forward," Inslee said.
A Pew Research Center poll in March found that 60 percent of Americans think the federal government shouldn't enforce federal anti-marijuana laws in states where its use has been approved. Younger people, who tend to vote more Democratic, are especially prone to that view. But opponents are worried these moves will lead to more use by young people. Colorado and Washington were states that helped re-elect Obama.
"Today's announcement demonstrates the sort of political vision and foresight from the White House we've been seeking for a long time," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York-based group. "The White House is basically saying to Washington and Colorado: Proceed with caution."
The Department of Justice left the door open to reverse course, however, by reserving its right to file a preemption lawsuit in the future, since marijuana remains illegal federally under the Controlled Substances Act.
According to the guidance, DOJ will still prosecute individuals or entities to prevent:
- The distribution of marijuana to minors;
- Revenue from the sale of marijuana from going to criminal enterprises, gangs and cartels;
- The diversion of marijuana from states where it is legal under state law in some form to other states;
- State-authorized marijuana activity from being used as a cover or pretext for the trafficking of other illegal drugs or other illegal activity;
- Violence and the use of firearms in the cultivation and distribution of marijuana;
- Drugged driving and the exacerbation of other adverse public health consequences associated with marijuana use;
- Growing of marijuana on public lands and the attendant public safety and environmental dangers posed by marijuana production on public lands;
- Preventing marijuana possession or use on federal property.