When voters in Colorado and Washington approved referendums that legalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana, both states looked anxiously at Washington and wondered how the Department of Justice would enforce federal laws against the weed.
Yesterday, DoJ announced that it would relax its enforcement of those laws while concentrating on keeping the drug out of the hands of children and pursuing major traffickers.
Attorney General Eric Holder, in a conference call Thursday morning, notified the governors of Colorado and Washington that the department, for now, will not seek to pre-empt those states' laws, which followed voters' approval of ballot measures that legalized recreational marijuana use.
Marijuana will remain illegal under the federal Controlled Substances Act. But a department memo to federal prosecutors tightened federal marijuana prosecution standards.
Under the new guidelines, federal prosecutors are required to focus on eight enforcement priorities, including preventing marijuana distribution to minors, preventing drugged driving, stopping drug trafficking by gangs and cartels and forbidding the cultivation of marijuana on public lands.
The guidelines, issued by Deputy Attorney General James Cole, have been months in the making and took on some urgency after citizens in Colorado and Washington approved the ballot measures last fall. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia allow some legal use of marijuana, primarily for medicinal purposes.
The attorney general told the Washington and Colorado governors that the Justice Department will work with the states to craft regulations that fall in line with the federal priorities, and reserves the right to try to block the laws if federal authorities find repeated violations.
The memo to prosecutors also seeks to address one common complaint from medicinal marijuana dispensaries in some states, which have been subject to raids by federal agents because they were deemed too big or profitable.
The size and profitability of marijuana businesses will still be a factor prosecutors can consider, but there also must be additional illegal activities for prosecutors to take action.
The new guidelines don't change federal money laundering rules, meaning that some large banks may still be leery of doing business with marijuana producers and sellers. However, Justice Department officials said there is some leeway for banks to provide services to such businesses, so long as they don't violate the eight priorities being assigned to federal prosecutors.
There is little doubt that small time pot distributors have clogged the courts for many years, sending mostly non-violent people to jail, thus contributing to prison overcrowding. The new rules means that there is now de facto pot legalization in the country - an experiment that has nothing to do with public health and everything to do with our legal system.
Marijuana is not harmless. When smoked, it has many of the same carcinogens as cigarette smoke. It's impact on brain chemistry apparently varies from person to person with some moderate users (4-6 times a month) prone to an increase in seratonin production that could lead to clinical depression.
But whatever public health problems raised by the drug, the legal problems of criminalizing pot far outweigh any concerns that marijuana is more dangerous than alcohol - which most studies show it isn't.
Don't expect a national law to legalize pot any time soon, but more states will probably follow the lead of Colorado and Washington in legalizing small amounts.