Pubdate: Fri, 30 Aug 2013
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Copyright: 2013 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Author: Brent Kendall And Joel Millman
Note: Nathan Koppel contributed to this article.


Justice Department Won't Challenge Marijuana Laws In Colorado, Washington

Department Reserves Right to Challenge Laws Later if States Don't 
Implement Strict Regulations, Official Says

The Obama administration said Thursday it wouldn't challenge state
laws in Colorado and Washington that allow recreational marijuana use,
in the latest victory for the movement to decriminalize the drug.

The decision clears the way for the states to move ahead in
implementing their laws and limits the vulnerability of marijuana
dealers there to federal prosecution, so long as they comply with
state regulations.

"I must admit, I was expecting a yellow light from the White House.
But this light looks a lot more greenish than I had hoped," said Ethan
Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which
advocates loosening marijuana laws.

Critics said the move would lead to increased marijuana abuse and harm
to pot users. "I see it as a tsunami in the works," said Calvina Fay,
executive director of the Drug Free America Foundation.

In November, voters in Colorado and Washington made their states the
first in the nation to permit the use of recreational marijuana. Those
two states, plus 18 others and the District of Columbia, permit it for
medicinal purposes.

Washington expects to issue licenses to pot retailers as soon as
December. Colorado sales are scheduled to start in January.

The U.S. has been working through contradictions in pot laws since the
1990s, when medicinal marijuana was approved in several states. The
federal Controlled Substances Act makes selling pot illegal, but the
Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations avoided seeking the
nullification of state laws in court. Thursday's move by the Obama
administration extends that policy to state recreational-use laws.

Both supporters and opponents of relaxing marijuana laws noted that
the Justice Department move opens the door to more states following
Colorado and Washington's lead.

In a conference call, Attorney General Eric Holder told governors of
both states that the Justice Department reserved the right to
challenge the states' laws later if U.S. officials find that the
states didn't put appropriate regulatory controls in place, a
department official said.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, said the Justice
Department's decision "shows the federal government is respecting the
will of Colorado voters." He said state officials would block pot
access to those under 21 years old and work to prevent marijuana
businesses from serving as fronts for criminal enterprises.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and state Attorney General Bob Ferguson,
both Democrats, said they shared the federal government's enforcement
priorities. They said Mr. Holder expressed a willingness to work with
the states on a financial structure that wouldn't run afoul of federal
law. Entrepreneurs expressing interest in marijuana businesses have
voiced concern that federal regulators would deter banks from lending
to them or prosecute securities firms issuing shares in pot companies.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa), co-chairman of the Senate Caucus on
International Narcotics Control, said the move "sends the wrong
message to both law enforcement and violators of federal law.
Apprehending and prosecuting illegal drug traffickers should always be
a priority for the Department of Justice."

In a memo to federal prosecutors Thursday, the Justice Department
stressed a point Mr. Holder has made in previous years""that
authorities should focus enforcement on major criminal activity, such
as the use of marijuana sales as a cover for drug trafficking. The
department has previously said it generally doesn't focus on people
who possess small amounts of pot for personal use.

The memo noted a large-scale marijuana business shouldn't be viewed as
a target for prosecution just because of its size, provided it is
"demonstrably in compliance" with state laws.

Attention in Washington and Colorado now turns to specific regulations
for producing and selling recreational pot. Washington state's Liquor
Control Board has spent this year working on rules, and next month the
state will begin accepting license applications from growers and retailers.

The state hasn't yet determined how many retail locations it will
permit. The Liquor Control Board has advised potential applicants that
individual cities and towns retain the right to zone out marijuana
entrepreneurs at their own discretion.

In Colorado, the state Department of Revenue is scheduled to finalize
rules by October that would govern pot sales. Additionally, a
statewide vote is set for November about whether to impose a higher
tax on pot sales.

Nathan Koppel contributed to this article. 
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