Marijuana advocacy groups applauded the Department of Justice’s new U.S. attorney guidelines for enforcing marijuana laws Thursday, but some worried the changes will be little more than cosmetic.
The Justice Department announced Thursday it will not sue Colorado and Washington to preempt the states’ new laws legalizing recreational marijuana. Additionally, the Justice Department released a memorandum outlining new priorities for U.S. attorneys prosecuting the nation’s ongoing drug war.
"This is a historic step forward for our country," said Erik Altieri, communications director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) in a statement. "If the Department of Justice stays true to their word, we will see these state experiments with marijuana move forward unhindered by federal law enforcement."
Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, called the Justice Department’s announcement "a major and historic step toward ending marijuana prohibition" in a press release.
Citizens of Colorado and Washington both voted to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes in November, creating a schism between their state laws and federal law, which still classifies marijuana as a schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act, along with heroin and LSD.
The Obama administration said it would offer clarification to state attorneys general and U.S. attorneys, but Thursday’s announcement, more than 200 days later, was its first official guidance on the issue.
The delay had some state officials miffed.
"The position taken by DOJ is very much along the lines I anticipated, and I remain mystified as to why it took so long to articulate it," Colorado Attorney General John Suthers said in a statement. "Clarification of the federal position, however, is nevertheless welcome."
President Barack Obama said after the November election that the federal government had "bigger fish to fry" and would not make prosecuting marijuana users a priority.
Federal law enforcement continued to raid dispensaries and grow operations in California, Washington, and Colorado during Obama’s first term.
Thursday’s announcement raised hopes among advocates of marijuana policy reform for a détente. However, some marijuana organizations worry the new guidelines won’t lead to substantive changes.
"It remains to be seen how individual U.S. attorneys will interpret the new guidance and whether they will continue their efforts to close down marijuana businesses that are operating in accordance with state law," the Marijuana Majority’s Tom Angell said in a statement.
"The guidelines seem to leave some leeway for the feds to continue making it hard for state-legal marijuana providers to do business," Angell continued.
U.S. attorneys have traditionally had broad discretion when it comes to how they prosecute the drug war.
San Diego U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy drew the ire of the ACLU and other groups when she announced her office would begin targeting publications that printed advertisements for medical marijuana dispensaries as well as landlords that rented to dispensaries.
Thursday’s memorandum, sent to U.S. attorneys in all 50 states, outlines eight priorities for prosecuting marijuana in states. Most involve preventing marijuana from reaching minors or revenue from being funneled to criminal enterprises.
However, one of the bullet points directs U.S. Attorneys to prevent "the exacerbation of other adverse public health consequences associated with use of marijuana," worrying some critics because of its vagueness.
Angell called the provision directing attorneys to avoid prosecuting individuals "meaningless," since individual marijuana users are only rarely the target of federal law enforcement.
"The real question is whether the president will call off his federal agencies that have been on the attack and finally let legal marijuana businesses operate without harassment, or if he wants the DEA and prosecutors to keep intervening as they have throughout his presidency and thus continue forcing users to buy marijuana on the illegal market where much of the profits go to violent drug cartels and gangs," Angell said.
Thursday’s announcement came two weeks before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing scheduled by chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) to examine the conflict between state and federal law on marijuana.
The hearing was also intended to prod the Justice Department into action.
"Our oversight on this issue was intended to provide movement on this policy question," Leahy said in a statement. "All the more in a time when federal resources are especially scarce, the Justice Department should focus on countering and prosecuting violent crime, while respecting the will of the states whose people have voted to legalize small amounts of marijuana for personal and medical use."