Attorney General Eric Holder has told the governors of both Washington and Colorado the federal government will not “pre-empt” major voter-mandated reforms as the states establish a legalized cannabis market.
“Today we received confirmation Washington’s voter-approved marijuana law will be implemented,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said through a release. “Attorney General Holder made it clear the federal government will continue to enforce the federal Controlled Substance Act by focusing its enforcement on eight specific concerns, including the prevention of distribution to minors and the importance of keeping Washington-grown marijuana within our state’s borders.”
Today’s announcement came hand-in-hand with a U.S. Department of Justice memo outlining the federal government’s eight priorities in regards to the enforcement of marijuana. These priorities are:
- Preventing the distribution of marijuana to minors;
- Preventing revenue from the sale of marijuana from going to criminal enterprises, gangs and cartels;
- Preventing the diversion of marijuana from states where it is legal under under state law in some form to other states;
- Preventing state-authorized marijuana activity from being used as a cover or pretext for the trafficking of other illegal drugs or other illegal activity;
- Preventing violence an the use of firearms in the cultivation and distribution or marijuana;
- Preventing drugged driving and the exacerbation of other adverse public health consequences associated with marijuana use;
- Preventing the growing of marijuana on public lands and the attendant public safety and environmental dangers posed by marijuana production on public lands; and
- Preventing marijuana possession on federal property.
The memo goes on to state that outside of these priorities the federal government has relied upon state and local law enforcement to address marijuana activity “through enforcement of their own narcotics laws” and outlines the expectation that states “will implement strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems.” Such language signals the possibility of cooperation between the federal DOJ and the state bureaucracies of Washington and Colorado as they implement strict regulations. Implicit in such a signal is the possibility that legal regulation may be more effective in meeting the DOJ’s stated goals than the existing policy of prohibition.
Nonetheless, the federal memo leaves open a loophole for future raids and other enforcement actions. “A system adequate to that task must not only contain robust controls and procedures on paper; it must also be effective in practice,” the memo reads.
The memo goes on to assert that while the federal government had previously confirmed “large-scale, for-profit commercial enterprises” as an adequate reason to target federal enforcement and prosecution, providing marijuana within compliance of an effective state regulatory system, “may allay the threat that an operation’s size poses to federal enforcement interests.”
This means prosecutors should not consider an marijuana operation’s size or commercial nature alone to assess whether it falls within the eight points of federal enforcement, the memo said. The sudden change in policy may come as a relief to large-scale dispensary operations like Oakland, California’s Harborside Health Center, which has won wide acclaim for its best practices but nonetheless drew the attention of federal officials for growing too large.
“We can assure the Attorney General that Washington state will remain vigilant in enforcing laws against the illicit marijuana market,” Inslee said. ”Since voters approved Initiative 502 last year, the state has been working to implement it. Today’s announcement from Attorney General Holder is a confirmation that the process can continue to move forward as planned.”
Washington and Colorado legalized marijuana in November; while regulated sales may begin as early as January 1st in Colorado, legal sales in Washington may not happen until late 2013.