Feds Won’t Challenge State’s Marijuana Law; Medical Marijuana Finds Itself in Crosshairs

The U.S. Department of Justice announced today that it would not challenge Washington’s marijuana policy.

Here’s the language of the press release:

For states such as Colorado and Washington that have enacted laws to authorize the production, distribution and possession of marijuana, the Department expects these states to establish strict regulatory schemes that protect the eight federal interests identified in the Department’s guidance. These schemes must be tough in practice, not just on paper, and include strong, state-based enforcement efforts, backed by adequate funding. Based on assurances that those states will impose an appropriately strict regulatory system, the Department has informed the governors of both states that it is deferring its right to challenge their legalization laws at this time.  But if any of the stated harms do materialize—either despite a strict regulatory scheme or because of the lack of one—federal prosecutors will act aggressively to bring individual prosecutions focused on federal enforcement priorities and the Department may challenge the regulatory scheme themselves in these states.

At least one marijuana advocate says he’s a little wary of the announcement, given the fact that the DOJ made similar statements about medical marijuana laws and then proceeded to bust mmj operations across the country.

“In all, today’s announcement represents a step in a right direction and a recognition by the administration that the politics of marijuana are rapidly shifting in favor of those who support legalization,” said Tom Angell, the Washington-D.C. based chairman of Marijuana Majority. “However, 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.”

On the point of medical marijuana, several officials said after the DOJ announcement that medical marijuana businesses will need to be heavily reformed, as they currently do not operate under the regulations laid out by the voter initiative.

Jenny A. Durkan, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington, called Washington’s medical marijuana industry untenable.

“The continued operation and proliferation of unregulated, for-profit entities outside of the state’s regulatory and licensing scheme is not tenable and violates both state and federal law. While our resources are limited, we will continue to enforce federal law in this arena by focusing on the critical public and federal interests outlined in the Department memo today.”

Jay Inslee also said that reform is necessary for medical marijuana.

“We believe there are serious changes that need to be brought to bear in terms of medical marijuana,” he said during a press conference.

Mayor Mike McGinn and Interim Police Chief Jim Pugel both applauded the announcement, saying that it respects the will of Washington voters and brings clarity to federal drug policy.

“Washington voters overwhelmingly approved the legalization of marijuana last year, a policy that I fully support,” McGinn said in a statement. “Since then, we have wondered what the course of action would be for federal officials, for whom marijuana remains an illegal substance. Today, I applaud US Attorney-General Holder’s announcement that he will not interfere with the will of Washington voters. Seattle public safety officials, residents and entrepreneurs can now proceed with confidence that the will of the voters has prevailed in Washington.”

“I am pleased that Attorney-General Holder has provided clarity about the future of I-502 in Washington State,” said Pugel. “Our department will continue our mission of public safety, harm reduction, and public education encouraging safe and lawful behavior with regards to the guidelines for marijuana established by Washington voters.”

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