Huge Federal Policy Directive Change on Marijuana Prosecutions

Justice Dept. Says it Will Keep Hands Off State Pot Laws

In a dramatic policy change, the Justice Department announced they will not challenge state marijuana laws so long as they don’t conflict with eight federal priorities. We’ve been waiting for the Administration to take an official position on the matter for what seems like ages, and now we have it.

The U.S. Controlled Substances Act still labels marijuana as a Schedule I drug—a highly dangerous and addictive substance. This classification has put federal courts and law enforcement at direct odds with changing laws that allow marijuana for medical use, and in the case of Colorado and Washington recreational use as well.

Though now-President Obama said he would make marijuana enforcement a “low priority” back when he was running for office, his Administration executed more medical marijuana dispensary raids than any other in years past. Still, we are hopeful with the official announcement and the eight priorities set for federal prosecutors, we can take the White House at their word.

Eric HolderThe directive, issued by Attorney General Eric Holder, applies to the whole nation but will obviously have effects in the 20 states and District of Columbia—where medical marijuana programs are in place—and Colorado and Washington states—where recreational marijuana was legalized in ballot initiatives last year.

In essence, though the directive doesn’t change the classification of marijuana from a Schedule I drug (something we can still hope for), it does discourage federal prosecutors from going after non-violent marijuana users and suppliers who adhere to state laws and have no links to drug cartels, in other words—the vast majority of marijuana users.

As reported by USA Today, there are eight specific violations that could trigger federal prosecution. If none of these eight are violated, federal prosecutors are being told to back off. They include:

  • The distribution of marijuana to minors.
  • Directing revenue from marijuana sales to gangs and cartels.
  • Diverting marijuana from states where it is legal to other states where there are no laws allowing for marijuana use.
  • Using legal sales as cover for trafficking operations.
  • Using violence and or firearms in marijuana cultivation and distribution.
  • Driving under the influence of marijuana.
  • Growing marijuana on public lands.
  • Possessing marijuana or using on federal property.

USA Today

With the majority of Americans supporting marijuana legalization for the first time in history, and most supporting the federal government adopting a “hands-off” policy on state pot laws, the announcement is seen as a victory. Sure, there are critics and it’s completely plausible that things may change once again in the future (especially when the Administration changes), but the move marks a significant shift from decades past and could usher in even more permissive state marijuana laws as many state officials have been reluctant to free up marijuana before knowing where the DOJ stood.


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Elizabeth Renter is a freelance writer and editor who writes about criminal justice issues.

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  • Robert P Doyle SR

    We joined NORML DC in 1972 or ’73 while there as an interested party at V V A W Hearings.
    The best thing that came about is the decades since knowing I am affiliated with an effort to end a huge crime against America by Americans.
    We seem to have taken longer to bring Public Awareness to a practical level.
    In Florida we have to gain another 600 thousand voter signatures to ballot 2014.
    We really are hopful to end prohibition Nationaly.

    • David Matson

      Well said, Robert. The war on drugs truly is a crime against America by Americans.
      The time to end prohibition is here, and public opinion has finally caught up with us.

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