The Justice Department will not sue to prevent the states of Washington and Colorado from permitting recreational marijuana use for adults.
Officials said that Attorney General Eric Holder called the governors of both states on Thursday to inform them that federal authorities won’t pre-empt their state laws permitting recreational use of the drug, which voters approved last year via ballot initiatives.
Holder told the two governors that the Justice Department will use a “trust but verify” policy, saying the federal government won’t step in to prevent the implementation of the marijuana laws if the states develop a sound, workable regulatory structure.
In response, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said, "We recognize how difficult this issue has been for the Department of Justice and we appreciate the thoughtful approach it has taken. Amendment 64 put Colorado in conflict with federal law. Today's announcement shows the federal government is respecting the will of Colorado voters.”
The Justice Department also issued a list of eight priorities for federal prosecutors who enforce laws dealing with marijuana, which is still illegal under federal law.
Those priorities would still target offenses like the distribution of marijuana to minors, the use of violence or firearms in the distribution of the drug, or the sale of marijuana to fund gangs or cartels for prosecution.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., praised the new guidelines in a statement.
"All the more in a time when federal resources are especially scarce, the Justice Department should focus on countering and prosecuting violent crime, while respecting the will of the states whose people have voted to legalize small amounts of marijuana for personal and medical use," he said.
President Barack Obama said after the two western states legalized recreational pot use that his administration did not view the prosecution of users in those states as “a top priority.”
"We've got bigger fish to fry," Obama said last year. "It would not make sense for us to see a top priority as going after recreational users in states that have determined that it's legal."
First published August 29 2013, 12:00 PM