Legalized marijuana advocates can breathe a little easier – the federal government will not attempt to block Washington’s legal pot laws.
On Thursday, August 29, Attorney General Eric Holder told the governors of Washington and Colorado that the Department of Justice (DOJ) will not issue federal restrictions on states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use. The move sets an important precedent for states to determine their own laws regarding marijuana use.
Washington voters passed Initiative 502 in November 2012 becoming, along with Colorado, the first states in the U.S. to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. Since the initiative passed, however, there has been a great deal of uncertainty about how to implement the new policy, as marijuana remains illegal at the federal level. Concern arose that the Department of Justice would attempt to raid legal retailers found in violation of federal drug statutes. This decision from the DOJ removes this worry.
Washington congresswoman Suzan DelBene released a statement on August 29 in response to the decision.
“Today’s announcement is good news for Washington residents, who overwhelmingly voted to approve I-502 last November,” DelBene said. “I am pleased that Attorney General Holder has determined the Justice Department’s enforcement policy and that implementation can now move forward.”
Seven of Washington’s federal representatives, including DelBene, issued a letter to Holder and the DOJ in June requesting that the federal government not pre-empt the desire of Washington voters.
The responsibility for regulating marijuana growers, distributers and retailers falls under the auspices of the Washington State Liquor Control Board (WSLCB). The board met on Wednesday, September 4 in Olympia to vote on proposed rules to implement I-502 and approved the measure.
“The board’s primary rule-making focus has been to create a tightly regulated market with emphasis on public safety and restricting youth access,” said Brian Smith, communications director for the WSLCB. “In his letter, Attorney General Holder expressed the same concerns.”
In addition to preventing the distribution to minors, Holder outlined eight major concerns of the DOJ, including legal marijuana dispensaries acting as fronts for illegal cartels, marijuana being transported outside of the state and the use of marijuana while driving.
Federal banking laws may also need to be relaxed to accommodate the state laws. Currently, many legal marijuana dispensaries are required to deal in cash-only transactions to avoid federal penalties, which makes it difficult for the WSLCB to regulate the budding marijuana industry.
The new ruling is being questioned by some marijuana legalization advocates. The Cannabis Action Coalition released a statement shortly after the DOJ’s announcement, warning citizens about potential limits to I-502’s effectiveness.
“The criminal laws are still on the books, you are still subject to arrest and prosecution by state officials,” the statement said. “Your license and business papers will be used as direct evidence of a federal crime.”
Many counties in Washington state have accepted grants through the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) program, which obligates local police to hand over confiscated drugs to the DEA. The Cannabis Action Coalition says that I-502 cannot be fully implemented until HIDTA grants are dissolved.
Marijuana is currently legal in 20 states and the District of Columbia, mostly for medicinal purposes.
Legalization advocates in Alaska, California and Arizona are currently attempting to have the issue put on the ballots for 2014, and lawmakers may look to Washington and Colorado to establish precedent on how to regulate the drug.