Feds Back Off Legal Challenge to State Pot Laws
Since the Obama Administration began in 2009, we've seen memos like this at least twice before. But last week's long-awaited Department of Justice memorandum concerning federal law enforcement policy regarding marijuana appears to be the most significant policy statement yet, and may have the most far-reaching consequences.
In a memo to all United States Attorneys, the Deputy Attorney General, James M. Cole, advises prosecutors that the Justice Department will not be challenging the recently-passed state laws legalizing marijuana in Colorado and Washington. Also, the memo instructs prosecutors not to base pot distribution charging decisions on the size or profitability of local marijuana dispensaries.
The policy statement was significant to the legal marijuana industry in those states as well as to the medical marijuana growers and dispensary owners throughout the country. One of the roadblocks to the development of the industry in general has been the confusion and anxiety arising when state laws say "go", but federal law still says "no".
While this memo provides some assurances to the, er, "industry professionals" [some would say, "criminals"], it does not change the basic fact that marijuana remains a Schedule 1 drug: i.e. criminalized due its high potential for abuse, with no proven medical benefits. Just ask the owners and operators of the dozen dispensaries recently mothballed in Northern California courtesy of Melinda Haag, the U.S. Attorney in California.
The pot lobby views the DOJ's most recent policy statement as "more good than bad." Their optimism comes from the DOJ's encouragement of large for-profit dispensaries that adhere to DOJ guidelines, and the invitation for other states to legalize pot.
Banks and insurance companies, however, have yet to buy into the transition of the marijuana industry from a craft-oriented enterprise to industrial production. Until that occurs, the pot farmer will just have to sleep with one eye open.
Post Script: Here is some of the fall-out to the DOJ's policy shift announcement from Congress, here and here.