WASHINGTON (AP) - Despite 75 years of federal marijuana prohibition, the Justice Department said Thursday that states can let people use the drug, license people to grow it and even allow adults to stroll into stores and buy it - as long as the weed is kept away from kids, the black market and federal property.
In a sweeping new policy statement prompted by pot legalization votes in Washington and Colorado last fall, the department gave the green light to states to adopt tight regulatory schemes to oversee the medical and recreational marijuana industries burgeoning across the country.
The action, welcomed by supporters of legalization, could set the stage for more states to legalize marijuana. Alaska could vote on the question next year, and a few other states plan similar votes in 2016.
Rachel Schaefer of Denver smokes
marijuana on the official opening night of Club 64, a marijuana-specific social club, where a New Year’s Eve party was held in
Denver on Dec. 31.
The policy change embraces what Justice Department officials called a "trust but verify" approach between the federal government and states that enact recreational drug use.
In a memo to all 94 U.S. attorneys' offices around the country, Deputy Attorney General James Cole said the federal government expects that states and local governments authorizing "marijuana-related conduct" will implement strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems that address the threat those state laws could pose to public health and safety.
"If state enforcement efforts are not sufficiently robust ... the federal government may seek to challenge the regulatory structure itself," the memo stated. States must ensure "that they do not undermine federal enforcement priorities," it added.
The U.S. attorney in Colorado, John Walsh, said he will continue to focus on whether Colorado's system has the resources and tools necessary to protect key federal public safety interests.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said the state is working to improve education and prevention efforts directed at young people and on enforcement tools to prevent access to marijuana by those under age 21. Colorado also is determined to keep marijuana businesses from being fronts for criminal enterprises or other illegal activity, he said, and the state is committed to preventing the export of marijuana while also enhancing efforts to keep state roads safe from impaired drivers.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee also laid out guidelines for drug entrepreneurs.
"If you don't sell this product to children, if you keep violent crime away from your business, if you pay your taxes and you don't use this as a front for illicit activity, we're going to be able to move forward," Inslee said.
Under the new federal policy, the government's top investigative priorities range from preventing the distribution of marijuana to minors to preventing sales revenue from going to criminal enterprises, gangs and cartels and preventing the diversion of marijuana outside of states where it is legal.
Other top enforcement areas include stopping state-authorized marijuana activity from being used as a cover for trafficking other illegal drugs and preventing violence and the use of firearms in the cultivation and distribution of marijuana. The top areas also include preventing drugged driving, preventing marijuana cultivation and possession on federal property.
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.
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.