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Obama Administration Won't Fight State Marijuana Laws

Washington, Colorado can implement legalization without federal interference

Jars containing various strands of medical marijuana sit behind a display case at the River Rock Medical Marijuana Center in Denver, Colorado.
Anthony Souffle/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images
August 30, 2013 11:40 AM ET

In a historic pivot in the War on Drugs, the Obama Justice Department announced this week that the federal government will allow Washington and Colorado to implement their state laws for the taxation and regulation of legal marijuana.

The carefully worded Justice Department memo does nothing to alter federal law. Instead, it makes explicit the federal objectives of continued enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act – preventing activities including the distribution of marijuana to minors, the diversion of marijuana profits to criminals and cartels, the growing of pot on federal land and the export of marijuana from states where it is legal to states that uphold prohibition.

How Harsh Is Your State? Check Out Our State-By-State Weed Map

To the extent that states themselves support those federal priorities by implementing "strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems to control the cultivation, distribution, sale, and possession of marijuana," the memo suggests, they should be left alone – for now. In a radical twist, the memo even suggests that "robust" state regulation of legal pot "may affirmatively address [federal] priorities by . . . replacing an illicit marketplace that funds criminal enterprises with a tightly regulated market in which revenues are tracked and accounted for."

The administration's move exceeded even the rosiest expectations of drug reform advocates. "Today's announcement demonstrates the sort of political vision and foresight from the White House we've been seeking for a long time," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, in a statement. "I must admit, I was expecting a yellow light from the White House. But this light looks a lot more green-ish than I had hoped. The White House is basically saying to Washington and Colorado: Proceed with caution."

See the Five Reasons Cops Want to Legalize Marijuana

In fact, the memo applies not only to states that have legalized recreational pot (or will), but gives new certainty to the nearly 20 states that have legalized medical marijuana. Most striking, the memo reverses the big-is-bad and profit-is-evil principles that have driven the recent crackdown on medical marijuana operations in California and beyond. "In exercising prosecutorial discretion," the memo says, "prosecutors should not consider the size or commercial nature of a marijuana operation alone as a proxy for assessing whether marijuana trafficking implicates the Department's enforcement priorities."

"This is the most heartening news to come out of Washington in a long, long time," said Neill Franklin, the executive director of Law Enforcement Against prohibition. "The federal government is not simply standing aside and allowing the will of the people to prevail in these two states. The attorney general and the Obama administration are exhibiting inspired leadership. The message to the people of the other 48 states, to all who value personal freedom and responsible regulation is clear: seize the day."

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