Justice Department eases rules on marijuana enforcement

The federal government on Thursday released new guidelines for federal prosecution of marijuana violations that mark a retreat from the aggressive guidelines of the past. 

Instead of targeting individual recreational users, federal prosecutors are being told to prioritize goals like keeping marijuana from being sold to minors and preventing marijuana sales from funding criminal operations.

ADVERTISEMENT
The directives were supplied to prosecutors across the country and restrict the standards under which they are advised to prosecute individuals for violation of the federal marijuana ban.

The new standards are most beneficial to marijuana users in Washington and Colorado, the two states where recreational marijuana use was legalized by ballot initiative in 2012.

Attorney General Eric Holder notified governors of the two states that, for the time being, the Justice Department would not take action to have the laws overturned. 

The move should also relieve federal pressure on medical marijuana dispensaries in 22 states, many of which have been faced prosecution in recent years.


Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, said his group was "encouraged" by the administration's decision. 

"At the heart of the guidance is a willingness to respect the voters who have decided a regulated marijuana market is preferable to a criminal market in their states," Smith said in a statement. 

"Now is not the time to push marijuana sales back under ground. The new voter-approved, regulated systems in Colorado and Washington should be allowed to proceed."


This new rule does not necessarily mean that users are home free, however, since marijuana remains illegal and prosecutors have significant discretion to interpret federal guidelines. 

In addition, state-level prosecutors are not affected by the federal guidelines.

Last December, President Obama said the government had “bigger fish to fry” than targeting recreational marijuana users.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest on Thursday referred questions about the legal justification for the move to the Justice Department, but said he wasn't sure the president favored a full-scale review of federal drug laws.

"The president has talked about the appropriate use of prosecutorial resources, and that applying them to individual users, particularly those who are sick, or their caretakers, is probably not the best use of our law enforcement resources, but having laws in place so these law enforcements resources can be targeted to drug kingpins and traffickers and others who contribute to violence on our streets is a very good use of those law enforcement resources," Earnest said.

Justin Sink contributed

Updated at 2:33 p.m. and 2:44 p.m.