Obama Administration Won’t Block State Marijuana Reforms

Posted August 29, 2013 in Government Marijuana by

Hand holding marijuana leaf against the sky


The Obama administration announced Thursday it will not seek to strike down state marijuana laws that conflict with federal law, including last year’s voter-driven legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington.

Attorney General Eric Holder hosted a conference call with the Governors of Colorado and Washington to inform them of the decision and warn them that the Department of Justice would be closely monitoring the marijuana activity in their states. Holder described a “trust but verify” system in which the federal government could step in to enforce federal law if the justice department feels such action is warranted.

In a memo issued by Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole, U.S. Attorneys were given revised guidance regarding their responsibility to enforce federal marijuana laws. The memo lists eight specific enforcement priorities on which U.S. Attorneys are encouraged to focus:

  • Distribution of marijuana to minors

  • Marijuana proceeds that fund gangs and cartels

  • Transportation of marijuana from jurisdictions where it’s legal to those where it’s illegal

  • Use of legal marijuana operations as a cover for illegal activity

  • Use of violence and firearms in the marijuana trade

  • Drugged driving and other adverse public health concerns

  • Unauthorized marijuana farms on public land

  • Possession and use of marijuana on federal property

The memo says the department’s guidance “rests on its expectation” that Colorado and Washington “will implement strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems.”

The Justice Department could have sued to block the new laws, and warns in the memo that it may still do so if the states fail to effectively safeguard against the eight enforcement priorities it identified.

Marijuana reform activists have waited anxiously for this announcement since December 2012, when Holder said it would be coming “relatively soon.”


‘Single Most Important Change’

Keith Stroup headshot

Keith Stroup

Keith Stroup, who founded the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) in 1970, told Lawyers.com the announcement “is the single most important change in marijuana policy at the federal level in my lifetime.”

“It permits the states to move forward with some confidence they will not be hassled by the feds,” Stroup said. “It is truly the beginning of the end for marijuana prohibition, regardless of why one smokes. It also reminds us that elections do matter, even if it takes some time for those differences to surface. No one on the planet would suggest that a Romney administration would have allowed the states to legalize marijuana, without a legal challenge.”


Skeptics Wary of ‘Double-Talk’

Not everyone shares Stroup’s optimism, however. The medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access issued a statement recognizing the announcement but noting that the Obama administration has previously blocked the implementation of “strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems” in multiple states.  

“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.”

Starting in October 2011, California’s four U.S. Attorneys launched a coordinated campaign to run state-legal medical marijuana dispensaries out of business by threatening their landlords, banks and other legitimate business vendors. But because President Obama had already pledged to not use federal resources to “circumvent state laws” on medical marijuana, the U.S. Attorneys justified their actions by depicting all of California’s dispensaries as “commercial operations” in violation of state laws requiring them to operate as non-profits.

As long as the U.S. Attorneys retain their right to enforce federal laws at will, no amount of Justice Department guidance will ensure the unobstructed operation of marijuana growers or sellers who operate in full compliance with relevant state laws.


Announcement Proof of ‘Positive Direction’

Civil rights attorney and member of the NORML Legal Committee Bill Rittenberg says that individual acts of heavy-handed marijuana prohibition may continue, but that shouldn’t detract from the significance of the Obama administration’s announcement.

“There will still be more casualties in the war on drugs,” Rittenberg said. “Let us cheer the positive direction the government is moving.”

“We are winning, so we should be acting like we are winning.”

What do you think of the Obama administration’s long-awaited announcement? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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