WASHINGTON — Despite 75 years of federal marijuana prohibition, the Justice Department said Thursday that states can let people use the drug, license people to grow it and even allow adults to stroll into stores and buy it — as long as the weed is kept away from kids, the black market and federal property.
In a sweeping new policy statement prompted by pot legalization votes in Washington and Colorado last fall, the department gave the green light to states to adopt tight regulatory schemes to oversee the medical and recreational marijuana industries burgeoning across the country.
The action, welcomed by supporters of legalization, could set the stage for more states to legalize marijuana. Alaska could vote on the question next year, and a few other states plan similar votes in 2016.
The policy change embraces what Justice Department officials called a “trust but verify” approach between the federal government and states that enact recreational drug use.
In a memo to all 94 U.S. attorneys’ offices around the country, Deputy Attorney General James Cole said the federal government expects that states and local governments authorizing “marijuana-related conduct” will implement strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems that address the threat those state laws could pose to public health and safety.
“If state enforcement efforts are not sufficiently robust ... the federal government may seek to challenge the regulatory structure itself,” the memo stated. States must ensure “that they do not undermine federal enforcement priorities,” it added.
Dieneka Manzanares, the co-owner of Sweet Leaf Pioneer, a medical marijuana dispensary in Eagle, said she was “really excited” to hear Thursday’s news from the Justice Department.
“We’ve been waiting two and a half years for this memo,” Manzanares said.
Federal officials in 2009 announced they wouldn’t pursue criminal cases against medical marijuana businesses. That sparked a medical marijuana boom in Colorado and other states. A couple of years later, the Justice Department qualified that original opinion, and followed it up with some prosecutions.
While the feds may not pursue criminal cases against marijuana-related businesses in Colorado and Washington, the substance still is illegal under federal law. That means marijuana businesses can’t have bank accounts at federally chartered banks, which is virtually every bank in the country.
Still, Manzanares said, Thursday’s Justice Department ruling could be a small step toward legitimizing the marijuana business.
Looking at the broader issue, Manzanares said she believes the Thursday memo is a victory for states, and the will of the voters.
On a local level, Manzanares said she hopes the Eagle Town Board upholds the will of voters. That board is expected to vote Sept. 10 whether or not to approve retail marijuana sales in Eagle. Sweet Leaf plans to open a retail outlet in addition to its medical dispensary in the town. Sweet Leaf decisively won a special election in 2012 that allowed the business to stay open after the Town Board tried to ban medical dispensaries in town.
Upvalley in Avon, council members including Mayor Rich Carroll have vocalized their opposition to retail marijuana as their town decides how to proceed. But for Carroll’s colleague Jake Wolf, this ruling only reinforces the need for regulation over banning.
“The surf’s up, and I intend to catch some waves,” said Wolf, who was voted on to Avon’s council last November. “Sitting on the beach and watching others do it just isn’t my style. This decision fuels the fire for my passion in leading our causes, not following them. The people spoke, and we are listening.”
The U.S. attorney in Colorado, John Walsh, said he will continue to focus on whether Colorado’s system has the resources and tools necessary to protect key federal public safety interests.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said the state is working to improve education and prevention efforts directed at young people and on enforcement tools to prevent access to marijuana by those younger than 21. Colorado also is determined to keep marijuana businesses from being fronts for criminal enterprises or other illegal activity, he said, and the state is committed to preventing the export of marijuana while also enhancing efforts to keep state roads safe from impaired drivers.
Under the new federal policy, the government’s top investigative priorities range from preventing the distribution of marijuana to minors to preventing sales revenue from going to criminal enterprises, gangs and cartels and preventing the diversion of marijuana outside of states where it is legal.
Other top-priority enforcement areas include stopping state-authorized marijuana activity from being used as a cover for trafficking other illegal drugs and preventing violence and the use of firearms in the cultivation and distribution of marijuana. The top areas also include preventing drugged driving, preventing marijuana cultivation and possession on federal property.
The Justice Department memo says it will take a broad view of the federal priorities. For example, in preventing the distribution of marijuana to minors, enforcement could take place when marijuana trafficking takes place near an area associated with minors, or when marijuana is marketed in an appealing manner to minors or diverted to minors.
Staff Writers Scott N. Miller and John LaConte contributed to this report.