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The Feds Will Let the States Legalize Pot… Maybe

The good news, bros, is that as long as Washington and Colorado’s regulatory schemes are judged sufficiently strict and their legal weed businesses stay within state lines, the DOJ is advising prosecutors to not go after marijuana growers and sellers.

This is what the world will be like if weed is ever unambiguously legalized in all 50 states. Photo via Flickr user mardi grass 2011

Ever since Colorado and Washington voted last November to legalize marijuana and treat it like alcohol or coffee or anything else that comes from nature, maaaaaaaan, the question has been how the federal government would respond. Would the people in charge of conducting the war on drugs really be OK with letting state law trump federal law? Well, the Department of Justice released a memo today and it turns out that yes, they’ll let everyone from Seattle to Denver light up legally—but there are some caveats, as always.


The memo (which can be read in full here) says that the DOJ has already been prioritizing stopping the really bad crimes that are connected to marijuana, like the sale of pot to kids, revenue going to cartels and other criminals, and violence that’s connected with the weed trade. It goes on to advise prosecutors that focusing on those activities is still a good idea before tackling the meat of the matter at hand: though some states have legalized weed, it shouldn’t change the Feds’ policy of going after drug growers and dealers who are killing people, growing pot on federally owned land, or breaking the law in other ways. Or, in government-ese:

“In jurisdictions that have enacted laws legalizing marijuana in some form and that have also implemented strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems to control the cultivation, distribution, sale, and possession of marijuana, conduct in compliance with those laws and regulations is less likely to threaten the federal priorities set forth above.”


“If state efforts are not sufficiently robust to protect against the harms set forth above, the federal government may seek to challenge the regulatory structure itself in addition to continuing to bring individual enforcement actions, including criminal prosecutions, focused on those harms.”

So the good news, bros, is that as long as Washington and Colorado’s regulatory schemes are judged sufficiently strict and their legal weed businesses stay within state lines, the DOJ is advising prosecutors to “mellow out” and not go after marijuana growers and sellers. But what’s not all that tight is that it sounds like the federal government is reserving the right to announce that the regulations set up by states are not working or inadequate to begin with and take legal action against Washington, Colorado, or any other state that legalizes weed in the future.


It also should be noted that this memo isn’t a change in law or even an ironclad policy—it’s just meant to advise prosecutors, who remain free to use their sometimes-fickle judgement. For instance, even though previous guidelines advised them not to go after individual medical-marijuana patients or small-scale distribution operations, that didn’t stop the DEA from cracking down on legal dispensaries in Washington last month. In fact, for some time now Barack Obama’s administration has been saying nice things about ending the war on drugs while continuing to enforce viciously unjust prohibitionist laws.

Just like the Feds are going to wait and see how the regulation of legal marijuana works out, drug-war doves are going to have to wait and see if agencies like the DEA and the FBI, who have been sending pot dealers to jail since J. Edgar Hoover was in panty hose, will really allow cannabis to be bought and sold in massive quantities. Likely, it really will depend on how strict the regulations are: the Feds are fond of raiding medical marijuana clinics in California, where there’s a lot of conflicting local laws and it’s often not clear where the pot comes from; Colorado’s dispensaries, however, electronically track every gram sold and have been largely left alone.

Legalizing weed at the federal level, which would likely solve many of the conflicts between local, state, and national regulatory regimes that make memos like this necessary, is still impossible politically. Maybe in a decade or two?

More on weed:

It's Good to Be the King

I Saw the Future of Pot at Seattle's Hempfest

Butane Hash Oil