Washington set to legalize marijuana use without Justice Department guidance

December 1, 2012

Adults in Washington state will be able to smoke marijuana legally when it is officially decriminalized Thursday, even though the Justice Department has offered no guidance on the conflict with federal drug laws.

Prosecutors throughout the state have begun dismissing hundreds of misdemeanor marijuana cases, according to authorities there, and state and local police are being retrained to arrest drivers who are high and allow adults to light up in their homes.

Marijuana, however, is still illegal under federal law. State officials say the Justice Department is creating confusion by remaining silent about what steps it may take in Washington and Colorado, which passed initiatives in November legalizing the manufacturing, distribution and possession of up to an ounce of marijuana.

Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire (D) met with Deputy Attorney General James Cole at the Justice Department, but came away with no answers.

“They said they were reviewing it,” Gregoire’s spokesman, Cory Curtis, said Friday. “They didn’t give us a timeline when they would provide clarity.”

After his state approved the initiative, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) called Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and wrote him a letter asking for guidance about how the federal government will react to the state’s new law.

“We need to know whether the federal government will take legal action to block the implementation of Amendment 64, or whether it will seek to prosecute grow and retail operations,” Hickenlooper wrote.

He also asked Holder if Justice will prosecute Colorado state employees who regulate and oversee the growing and distribution of marijuana.

“We find no clear guidance on these issues in memoranda or statements previously issued by the DOJ,” Hickenlooper wrote.

Like their counterparts in Washington, Colorado prosecutors have begun throwing out hundreds of misdemeanor marijuana cases.

Holder has not responded to Hickenlooper’s Nov. 13 letter. Justice spokeswoman Nanda Chitre said the letter is “still under review.”

Several universities in the two states have decided to maintain the status quo, banning students from smoking or consuming marijuana on campus.

The schools rely on millions of dollars in federal funding, and officials say they are worried that failure to abide by federal marijuna laws could jeopardize the money. The federal Controlled Substances Act prohibits the production, possession and sale of marijuana and classified it as a Schedule 1 drug, putting it in the same category as LSD and heroin.

“There are a lot more questions than answers at this point,” said Kathy Barnard, spokeswoman for Washington State University in Pullman. “Marijuana is still illegal under federal law and as a federally funded institution, we abide and respect that.”

Mexican President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto also said he is waiting to see how Justice responds to the conflict between state and federal laws. In an interview with Time magazine last week, he called for a rethinking of drug policy and the war on drugs after the legalization of marijuana in the two states.

Peña Nieto’s top adviser, Luis Videgaray, has said that legalization “changes the rules of the game in the relationship with the United States” in regard to anti-drug efforts.

“Obviously, we can’t handle a product that is illegal in Mexico, trying to stop its transfer to the United States, when in the United States, at least in part of the United States, it now has a different status,” Videgaray said.

Sari Horwitz joined The Post’s investigations unit in 2006 after 23 years at paper, where she has reported on crime, homeland security, education and social services.
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