The Justice Department memo says it will take a broad view of the federal priorities. For example, in preventing the distribution of marijuana to minors, enforcement could take place when marijuana trafficking takes place near an area associated with minors, or when marijuana is marketed in an appealing manner to minors or diverted to minors.
Following the votes in Colorado and Washington last year, Attorney General Eric Holder launched a review of marijuana enforcement policy that included an examination of the two states. The issue was whether they should be blocked from operating marijuana markets on the grounds that actively regulating an illegal substance conflicts with federal drug law that bans it.
Peter Bensinger, a former head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said the conflict between federal and state law is clear and can’t be reconciled. Federal law is paramount, and Holder is “not only abandoning the law, he’s breaking the law. He’s not only shirking his duty, he’s not living up to his oath of office,” Bensinger said.
Last December, President Barack Obama said it doesn’t make sense for the federal government to go after recreational drug users in a state that has legalized marijuana. Last week, the White House said that prosecution of drug traffickers remains an important priority.
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.
Advocates of medical marijuana were cautious about the new policy. Twenty states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws that effectively allow patients to access and use medical marijuana. Threats of criminal prosecution and asset forfeiture by U.S. attorneys have closed more than 600 dispensaries in California, Colorado and Washington over the past two years, said Americans for Safe Access, which advocates for safe and legal access to therapeutic cannabis.
Dan Riffle of the Marijuana Policy Project, the nation’s largest marijuana policy organization, called the policy change “a major and historic step toward ending marijuana prohibition” and “a clear signal that states are free to determine their own policies.”
Kevin Sabet, the director of Project Smart Approaches to Marijuana, an anti-legalization group, predicted the new Justice Department policy will accelerate a national discussion about legalization because people will see its harms — including more drugged driving and higher high school dropout rates.
Kristi Kelly, a co-founder of three medical marijuana shops near Denver, said the Justice Department’s action is a step in the right direction.
“We’ve been operating in a gray area for a long time. We’re looking for some sort of concrete assurances that this industry is viable,” she said.
A national trade group, the National Cannabis Industry Association, said it hopes steps will be taken to allow marijuana establishments access to banking services. Federally insured banks are barred from taking money from marijuana businesses because the drug is still banned by the federal government.