Marking a shift on national marijuana policy, the Justice Department announced on Thursday that it would not challenge state laws that regulate the use of the drug for adults.
While writing that marijuana remains an illegal drug under the Controlled Substances Act, the DOJ told the governors of Washington and Colorado, which legalized recreational marijuana use in 2012, that it was "deferring its right to challenge their legalization laws at this time," provided the states establish and maintain "strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems."
The memo outlines 8 areas federal prosecutors will prioritize their efforts, including preventing the distribution of marijuana to minors, preventing the transport of marijuana from a state where it is legal to one where it is not, and preventing its use and possession on federal property.
However, it states that "If state enforcement efforts are not sufficiently robust to protect against the harms set forth above," the federal government can challenge the state's regulations and go forth with criminal prosecutions.
Ezekiel Edwards, director of the ACLU's Criminal Law Reform Project, said, "This guidance is one more concrete step towards more sensible drug policy in this country.
Medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access, which recently issued a report detailing the economic and social costs of federal enforcement, however, gave the new guidance a cautious welcome, saying the priorities outlined in the policy have not thwarted Justice Department attacks on medical marijuana states.
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"While we're hopeful that the Justice Department will adhere to these policies, our experience with the Obama Administration so far has been lots of double-talk," said Steph Sherer, Executive Director of Americans for Safe Access. "In order to gain the trust of Americans, Obama's U.S. Attorneys must stop their aggressive and unnecessary enforcement campaigns in medical marijuana states."
Martin Lee, investigative reporter and author of several books, including “Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana — Medical, Recreational and Scientific,” told Democracy Now! on Friday that the new guidance "could be a game-changer," as politicians now try to catch up to cultural momentum. But, he cautioned, "the guidance issue made by the Department of Justice yesterday is kind of littered with caveats and red flags.”
"The notion that the prosecutors will still be encouraged to take action with respect to marijuana sales to minors, for example, or diversion from states where it is grown legally now—Washington and Colorado—to other states, this could be a problem, because this will continue. I mean, people in the United States—the average age of turning onto marijuana is just below 15 years old. That will continue regardless of what the laws say. Diversion to other states is bound to continue, irrespective of the laws or the Justice Department’s policy. So at any time in the future, a future administration can lower the boom on this," Lee stated.
Hear more of Lee's comments in his interview with Democracy Now!: