Feds step down on marijuana legalization

War on Drugs winding down? Obama administration announces will not block state legalization laws

By Natasha Lennard
Published August 29, 2013 6:22PM (EDT)

The threat of federal intervention has loomed large for states like Washington and Colorado, where voters have seen statewide marijuana legalization laws passed. In an important step down in the decades-old War on Drugs, Deputy Attorney General James Cole announced in a memo Thursday that the federal administration will not stand in the way of states where voters have supported legalizing marijuana either for medical or recreational use, as long as those states maintain strict rules involving distribution of the drug.

“We’ve got bigger fish to fry,” President Obama said of the shift in stance. “It would not make sense for us to see a top priority as going after recreational users in states that have determined that it’s legal.”

The Washington Post noted:

The memo directs federal prosecutors to focus their resources on eight specific areas of enforcement, rather than targeting individual marijuana users, which even President Obama has acknowledged is not the best use of federal manpower. Those areas include preventing distribution of marijuana to minors, preventing the sale of pot to cartels and gangs, preventing sales to other states where the drug remains illegal under state law, and stopping the growing of marijuana on public lands.

A Justice Department official said that Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. had called the governors of Colorado and Washington around noon Thursday to inform them of the administration’s stance.

Up until this point federal authorities, especially in certain areas of California, have raided and brought hefty federal charges against medical marijuana distributors and growers (deemed legal by state law). Whether the new federal stance will lead to to commuting of any convictions based on the previous federal illegality of marijuana distribution is a crucial question.

Chairman of advocacy group Marijuana Majority, Tom Angell, told Salon via email that while the announcement is a "step in the right direction," plenty of concerns about the federal position on marijuana remain:

The real question is whether the president will call off his federal agencies that have been on the attack and finally let legal marijuana businesses operate without harassment, or if he wants the DEA and prosecutors to keep intervening as they have throughout his presidency and thus continue forcing users to buy marijuana on the illegal market where much of the profits go to violent drug cartels and gangs... My optimism is tempered by the fact that despite the Justice Department's 2009 announcement that it shouldn't be a priority to bust medical marijuana providers operating in accordance with state law, this administration went on to close down more state-legal marijuana businesses in one term than the Bush administration did in two terms.

Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com.

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