WASHINGTON, DC — United States Attorney General Eric Holder says his department is in the final stages of reviewing voter-approved marijuana legalization initiatives in Washington and Colorado to determine federal policy on how the Department of Justice will react.
“You will hear soon,” Holder said Tuesday, speaking at a conference in Washington, DC. “We’re in the last stages of that review and we’re trying to make a determination as to what the policy ramifications are going to be, what our international obligations are — there are a whole variety of things that go into this determination — but the people of [Colorado] and Washington deserve an answer and you will have one soon.”
Holder oversees the Justice Department, charged with enforcing federal laws – including laws prohibiting marijuana sale, possession or cultivation in the United States. Although voters in Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana, it remains illegal under federal law, with the potential of a federal vs. state showdown as the states work to allow and regulate commercial sales of cannabis.
Some experts believe the Justice Department will treat recreational marijuana laws differently from state medical marijuana laws. While medical marijuana laws are seen as a somewhat limited encroachment on federal policy, many officials within DOJ and the Drug Enforcement Administration consider recreational marijuana laws to be a full-out assault on federal law.
Holder’s assessment could result in the federal government suing the states over the new laws, mount an all out armed federal assault on state-sanctioned marijuana businesses in Washington and Colorado, or Holder could decide allow state law to take precedent over federal law.
Under Holder’s supervision, the Department of Justice has heavily cracked down on medical marijuana dispensaries in growers in states that have legalized medical marijuana.
During the 2008 presidential elections, candidate Barack Obama said that medical marijuana was an issue for state governments, not the federal government.
“I’m not going to be using Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws on this issue,” he said at the time.
Since the 2008 elections, the Obama administration has flip-flopped its stance on tolerance of state’s marijuana laws. In a 2009 memo to federal prosecutors in the then-14 states that allowed medical marijuana, the Justice Department said that it was committed to the “efficient and rational use” of its resources, and that prosecuting patients and distributors who are in “clear and unambiguous compliance” with state medical marijuana laws would not happen.
Two years later, the administration made an abrupt about-face, and began a large scale federal crackdown on medical marijuana providers, beginning with major enforcement efforts in California and Colorado.
In the wake of the 2012 elections, which saw voters in Washington and Colorado legalize the recreational use of marijuana by adults, President Obama said that enforcement of federal marijuana laws in those states would not be a priority.
“We’ve got bigger fish to fry,” President Obama told ABC News. “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.”
Meanwhile, legislation has been filed in Congress that would remove marijuana from the federal government’s Schedule I classification, as well as legislation to protect individual states’ rights to legalize the medical or recreational use of marijuana.