DENVER — The Justice Department won’t challenge states like Colorado proceeding with recreational marijuana legalization as long as they adhere to certain conditions, according to a memo released Thursday.
The long-awaited announcement, coming three days after the Senate Judiciary Committee called for a hearing on the delay, gives Colorado officials some breathing room as they prepare to move forward with plans for a state regulatory market on marijuana.
Colorado Attorney General John Suthers, who received word Thursday morning from the Justice Department, said, “I remain mystified as to why it took so long to articulate it.”
“Clarification of the federal position, however, is nevertheless welcome,” said Suthers in a statement. “Colorado state government will continue to develop a reguilatory scheme that is as effective as possible under the dictates of Amendment 64 with recognition that the federal government will take action if the state regulatory scheme does not deter activity that runs afoul of federal enforcement priorities.”
Those priorities include preventing marijuana distribution to minors, revenue from sales to criminal cartels, and diversion of marijuana to states where the drug is illegal, according to a memo issued Thursday by Deputy Attorney General James Cole.
Supporters of legalization praised the move while noting that some issues surrounding marijuana regulation are still unresolved. The federal Controlled Substances Act bans all pot cultivation, sales and distribution.
“We are pleased to see the Obama administration will not cause harm to citizens and states by shutting these businesses down, and hope this will lead to an expansion of sensible policies related to marijuana such as allowing these businesses access to banking and taxing them at a fair rate,” said Betty Aldworth, deputy director of the Cannabis Industry Association in Denver.
Bills are pending in Congress that would allow federal regulation of marijuana and pot businesses to use the banking system.
“We need to address the public safety, crime and lost tax revenue associated when these legal and regulated businesses are operating in a cash-only system,” said Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colorado) in a statement. “We need to provide financial institutions certainty they can make their own business decisions related to local financial transactions without fear of regulatory penalties.”
Steve Prasierb, president and CEO of Partnership at Drugfree.org, said in a statement that the Justice Department advisory “means that education and prevent around teen marijuana use becomes all the more important.”
“On our part, we will continue to bring the voice of parents into the dialogue in Colorado, Washington and the likely new round of states that move forward with legalization given today’s announcement by the Department of Justice, working hard to be both responsive and rational to a health concern facing families and kids with a real impact on their future,” said Prasierb.
In 2009, the Justice Department issued a memo saying agents wouldn’t challenge states opting to regulate medical marijuana, but federal agents later raided several California operations.
“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,” said Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority, “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.”
Both Colorado and Washington voters passed ballot measures in November 2012 allowing recreational marijuana use for adults 21 and older. Twenty states, including Colorado, and the District of Columbia permit medical marijuana.