The memo, which was welcomed by proponents of marijuana legalization, directs federal prosecutors to focus on eight areas of enforcement rather than spending time targeting individual users. Those aims include preventing distribution of marijuana to minors, stopping the growing of marijuana on public land, keeping pot from falling into the hands of cartels and gangs, and preventing the diversion of marijuana to states where it remains illegal.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. called the governors of Colorado and Washington about noon Thursday to inform them of the decision. A Justice official said Holder told them that federal prosecutors would be watching closely as the two states finalize a regulatory framework for marijuana and that prosecutors would be taking a “trust but verify” approach.
Last fall, Washington and Colorado approved initiatives to legalize the possession of less than an ounce of marijuana, becoming the first states to approve the drug for recreational use. Twenty states and the District have passed laws legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes.
Until Thursday, the administration had remained silent about the initiatives in Colorado and Washington, despite requests for guidance from state officials.
“We recognize how difficult this issue has been for the Department of Justice and we appreciate the thoughtful approach it has taken,” Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D), who opposed efforts to legalize marijuana last year, said in a statement. “Amendment 64 put Colorado in conflict with federal law. Today’s announcement shows the federal government is respecting the will of Colorado voters.”
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D), in a statement with state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, said the guidance “reflects a balanced approach by the federal government that respects the states’ interests in implementing these laws and recognizes the federal government’s role in fighting illegal drugs and criminal activity.”
Proponents of marijuana legalization welcomed the new administration guidance.
“This is a very significant step forward,” said Christian Sederberg, a Denver lawyer who helped draft Amendment 64. “The simple truth is that a tightly regulated marijuana market is superior to the criminal market. State-regulated business will now be able to continue creating good jobs and generating tax revenue. This is what progress looks like.”
Sederberg said state lawmakers and a government-backed task force in Colorado have tried to deal with the concerns of federal officials — such as keeping pot out of the hands of minors — while setting up the regulatory framework for a marijuana market.