Many observers in the drug policy arena said late last year that once two states’ voters agreed to legalize and regulate recreational use of marijuana, the issue of more states following suit would be a question not of “if,” but of “when.” Today’s announcement by the Obama administration that it will not interfere with the legalization ballot measures that passed last fall in Colorado and Washington seems virtually to guarantee that more moves toward legalization will surface across the country.
While the direction from the U.S. Department of Justice represents no endorsement of the 2012 ballot measures, it also strikes a less harsh tone at this point than how the federal government has reacted in recent years to, for example, the establishment of numerous medical marijuana dispensaries in California.
A memorandum to U.S. attorneys from the Justice Department directs prosecutors to focus their efforts not on individual marijuana users, but on ensuring that states such as Colorado and Washington enforce strong regulations in areas such as keeping marijuana out of the hands of youths, blocking marijuana sales in states that have not embraced legalization, and using state-authorized marijuana activity as cover for trafficking in other illegal drugs.
The Justice Department memo suggests that the agency’s perspective could change if evidence of weak regulations in Colorado and Washington comes to light, since marijuana’s remaining illegal under federal law would still give the federal government the opportunity to seek to preempt the state laws in the future.
As is often the case when marijuana policy developments break, the legalization-friendly Drug Policy Alliance burst out of the gate with public reaction.
“I must admit, I was expecting a yellow light from the White House,” executive director Ethan Nadelmann said in a news release. “But this light looks a lot more green-ish than I had hoped. The White House is basically saying to Washington and Colorado: Proceed with caution.”
Reaction elsewhere was much less favorable. Ben Cort, who last year led the effort against passage of Colorado’s ballot measure and is a board member of the group Project SAM: Smart Approaches to Marijuana, believes Colorado will end up becoming a disappointing test case for what can happen when anti-drug restrictions are relaxed. Cort, who is now working in the treatment community, has long argued that minimal safeguards against abuses were included in the Colorado law.
“I have no doubt that the massive commercialization of weed that we are seeing in Colorado will explode now, and that as they develop more effective ways to target younger and younger people the rest of the U.S. will see the devastating effects that marijuana has on the developing mind,” says Cort.
Cort adds, “I hope that [Attorney General Eric] Holder keeps an eye on what happens here to our most vulnerable, and the next time he has to decide between doing his job to uphold federal law or caving in to a well-funded and very loud special interest he picks the former.”