In a sweeping new policy statement prompted by pot legalization votes in Washington and Colorado last fall, the department gave states the green light to adopt tight regulatory schemes to oversee the medical and recreational marijuana industries burgeoning across the country.
The action, welcomed by supporters of legalization, could set the stage for more states to legalize marijuana. Alaska could vote on the question next year and a few other states plan similar votes in 2016.
The policy change embraces what Justice Department officials called a “trust but verify” approach between the federal government and states that enact recreational drug use.
In a memo to all 94 U.S. attorneys’ offices around the country, Deputy Attorney General James Cole said the federal government expects states and local governments authorizing “marijuana-related conduct” to implement strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems that address the threat state laws could pose to public health and safety.
“If state enforcement efforts are not sufficiently robust … the federal government may seek to challenge the regulatory structure itself,” the memo stated. States must ensure “that they do not undermine federal enforcement priorities,” it added.
The U.S. attorney in Colorado, John Walsh, said he will continue to focus on whether Colorado’s system has the resources and tools necessary to protect key federal public safety interests.