Legalized Pot Cleared, for Now, by Uncle Sam
(CN) - The White House said it has no plans to force the repeal of marijuana-legalization laws in Washington and Colorado, but it remained silent about the future of enforcement activities in other states where medical marijuana is the law.
While the government's statement stresses that marijuana remains illegal under the Controlled Substances Act, it said it has "informed the governors of [Washington and Colorado] that it is deferring its right to challenge their legalization laws at this time."
Voters in those states passed laws this past November legalizing marijuana for recreational use for adults.
The government said it expects the states to "establish strict regulatory schemes that protect the eight federal interests identified in the Department's guidance. These schemes must be tough in practice, not just on paper, and include strong, state-based enforcement efforts, backed by adequate funding."
Those eight federal areas of interest include preventing the distribution of marijuana to minors, preventing profits from going to criminal enterprises including gangs and cartels, preventing marijuana from crossing into states where it is illegal, and preventing drugged driving, according to a memorandum Deputy Attorney General James Cole issued to all U.S. attorneys yesterday, prompting the press release.
The federal government said it nevertheless reserves the right to enforce federal marijuana laws against Washington and Colorado.
"If any of the stated harms do materialize - either despite a strict regulatory scheme or because of the lack of one - federal prosecutors will act aggressively to bring individuals prosecutions focused on federal enforcement priorities and the Department may challenge the regulatory scheme themselves in these states," the release states.
Steph Sherer, executive director of the marijuana-legalization advocacy group Americans for Safe Access, met the announcement with skepticism.
"While we're hopeful that the Justice Department will adhere to these policies, our experience with the Obama administration so far has been lots of double-talk," Sherer said in a statement. "In order to gain the trust of Americans, Obama's U.S. attorneys must stop their aggressive and unnecessary enforcement campaigns in medical marijuana states."
Sherer's organization warns that "threats of criminal prosecution and asset forfeiture by U.S. Attorneys have closed more than 600 dispensaries in California, Colorado and Washington over the past two years, based on their proximity to schools and other so-called 'sensitive uses,' even though no state law had been violated."
The federal government is currently trying to seize Harborside Health Center's two San Francisco Bay Area medical marijuana dispensaries and the Shambhala Healing Center in San Francisco.
It claims that Harborside is a "superstore," the sheer size of which increases the chances that medical marijuana will get into the hands of nonpatients, and that Shambhala sells marijuana within 1,000 feet of a public playground, in violation of the Controlled Substances Act.
The city of Oakland sued the federal government in 2012 for interfering with its rights to regulate Harborside. Though a federal judge ruled that Oakland lacked standing to sue, the city is appealing the ruling and the forfeiture action against Harborside has been stayed pending the result.
Henry Wykowski, attorney for Harborside Health Center in the forfeiture proceedings, said in an interview that he was "encouraged by what the Department of Justice has done to respect decisions by those states that chose to legalize and regulate cannabis" and that the "time has come to recognize cannabis should be legalized and regulated."
While the Cole memorandum states that it "does not provide defendants or subjects of enforcement action with a basis for reconsideration of any pending civil action or criminal prosecution," Wykowski said he is "hopeful that the Department of Justice will re-evaluate the appropriateness of proceeding with the forfeiture actions in light of this stated policy."
"I would hope that the U.S. attorney would sit down and meet with us to discuss the appropriateness of dismissing these actions," Wykowski said. "That would seem to me to be the correct response."
Wykowski said he believes "there are a lot better things [the government] can do with their resources then go against the most respected dispensary in the state."
"This is the dispensary they should be pointing to for others to emulate, the standard they should ask everyone to follow, not pursue a forfeiture action against them," he added, pointing to the availability of methamphetamine and heroin as just two dangerous activities on which the federal government should focus its resources.
Asked how the Cole memo might affect current litigation and enforcement efforts against medical marijuana operations in California and other states where medical pot is legal, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of California referred all questions about to the Department of Justice's Office of Public Affairs. That officer did not respond to a request for comment.
The Obama administration recently announced that it would not change marijuana's classification as a Schedule 1 Drug, which means it has no accepted medical use, though the federal government was granted a U.S. patent for marijuana in 2003 and has reportedly applied for a worldwide patent for synthetic cannabis.