- This article appeared August 30, 2013, on page A5 in The Wall Street Journal
BRENT KENDALL, and JOEL MILLMANThe Obama administration said Thursday it wouldn’t challenge state laws in Colorado and Washington that allow recreational marijuana use, in the latest victory for the movement to decriminalize the drug.
The decision clears the way for the states to move ahead in implementing their laws and limits the vulnerability of marijuana dealers there to federal prosecution, so long as they comply with state regulations.
“I must admit, I was expecting a yellow light from the White House. But this light looks a lot more greenish than I had hoped,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates loosening marijuana laws.
Critics said the move would lead to increased marijuana abuse and harm to pot users. “I see it as a tsunami in the works,” said Calvina Fay, executive director of the Drug Free America Foundation.
At Seattle’s Hempfest this month, Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, a police spokesman, handed out snacks featuring stickers spelling out rules on pot use.
In November, voters in Colorado and Washington made their states the first in the nation to permit the use of recreational marijuana. Those two states, plus 18 others and the District of Columbia, permit it for medicinal purposes.
Washington expects to issue licenses to pot retailers as soon as December. Colorado sales are scheduled to start in January.
The U.S. has been working through contradictions in pot laws since the 1990s, when medicinal marijuana was approved in several states. The federal Controlled Substances Act makes selling pot illegal, but the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations avoided seeking the nullification of state laws in court. Thursday’s move by the Obama administration extends that policy to state recreational-use laws.
Both supporters and opponents of relaxing marijuana laws noted that the Justice Department move opens the door to more states following Colorado and Washington’s lead.
In a conference call, Attorney General Eric Holder told governors of both states that the Justice Department reserved the right to challenge the states’ laws later if U.S. officials find that the states didn’t put appropriate regulatory controls in place, a department official said.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, said the Justice Department’s decision “shows the federal government is respecting the will of Colorado voters.” He said state officials would block pot access to those under 21 years old and work to prevent marijuana businesses from serving as fronts for criminal enterprises.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, both Democrats, said they shared the federal government’s enforcement priorities. They said Mr. Holder expressed a willingness to work with the states on a financial structure that wouldn’t run afoul of federal law. Entrepreneurs expressing interest in marijuana businesses have voiced concern that federal regulators would deter banks from lending to them or prosecute securities firms issuing shares in pot companies.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa), co-chairman of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, said the move “sends the wrong message to both law enforcement and violators of federal law. Apprehending and prosecuting illegal drug traffickers should always be a priority for the Department of Justice.”
In a memo to federal prosecutors Thursday, the Justice Department stressed a point Mr. Holder has made in previous years—that authorities should focus enforcement on major criminal activity, such as the use of marijuana sales as a cover for drug trafficking. The department has previously said it generally doesn’t focus on people who possess small amounts of pot for personal use.
The memo noted a large-scale marijuana business shouldn’t be viewed as a target for prosecution just because of its size, provided it is “demonstrably in compliance” with state laws.
Attention in Washington and Colorado now turns to specific regulations for producing and selling recreational pot. Washington state’s Liquor Control Board has spent this year working on rules, and next month the state will begin accepting license applications from growers and retailers.
The state hasn’t yet determined how many retail locations it will permit. The Liquor Control Board has advised potential applicants that individual cities and towns retain the right to zone out marijuana entrepreneurs at their own discretion.
In Colorado, the state Department of Revenue is scheduled to finalize rules by October that would govern pot sales. Additionally, a statewide vote is set for November about whether to impose a higher tax on pot sales.
A version of this article appeared August 30, 2013, on page A5 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: U.S. to Leave Pot Laws Alone.