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State officials vow to challenge Justice Department’s marijuana enforcement memo

State officials vow to challenge Justice Department’s marijuana enforcement memo

Officials in several states that have legalized the use of medical and recreational marijuana condemned the U.S. Department of Justice’s decision to double down on enforcement of marijuana laws, with several vowing to defend their rights to legalize marijuana use.

The department issued a statement on Thursday outlining its stance on federal marijuana enforcement policy, telling all U.S. attorneys to enforce the Controlled Substances Act, a law on the books since 1970 which classifies marijuana as an illegal drug. 

The announcement reverses an Obama administration stance – known as the Cole Memorandum – that told states the federal government would not enforce the Controlled Substances Act when it comes to marijuana. The announcement also follows a year where no federal dollars were earmarked to fight marijuana.

Medical marijuana has been legal in California since 1996 and legal recreational use went into effect on Jan. 1 – both laws ratified by voters via referendums.

“I stand with the voters of California in defending California's efforts to legalize cannabis,” California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones said in a statement on Thursday. “Attorney General (Jeff) Session's decision to rescind the Cole Memoranda… is simply contrary to good law enforcement practice for the federal Department of Justice to waste time and resources going after legitimate cannabis businesses and consumers in California.

“Placing numerous businesses, consumers and medical patients at risk is not a responsible decision. California should and will litigate to defend its right to legalize and regulate cannabis,” Mr. Jones said in his statement.

The Justice Department’s memo told states that it would return to “the rule of law and the rescission of previous guidance documents ... (which) generally prohibited the cultivation, distribution and possession of marijuana.”

In the memorandum, “Attorney General Jeff Sessions directs all U.S. Attorneys to enforce the laws enacted by Congress and to follow well-established principles when pursuing prosecutions related to marijuana activities.”

Medical marijuana use is legal in 29 states and the District of Columbia while recreational use is legal in seven states. Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize recreational marijuana in 2012.

“Make no mistake: as we have told the Department of Justice ever since (the state’s recreational marijuana law) was passed in 2012, we will vigorously defend our state’s laws against undue federal infringement,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said in a statement on Thursday.

“Thirty states comprising more than two thirds of the American people have legalized marijuana in some form,” Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said in a statement on Thursday. “The Cole memo got it right and was foundational in guiding states’ efforts to regulate the production and distribution of marijuana. Colorado has created a comprehensive regulatory system committed to supporting the will of our voters. We constantly evaluate and seek to strengthen our approach to regulation and enforcement. Our focus will continue to be the public health and public safety of our citizens. We are expanding efforts to eliminate the black market and keep marijuana out of the hands of minors and criminals. Today’s decision does not alter the strength of our resolve in those areas, nor does it change my constitutional responsibilities.”

“Today the Attorney General rescinded the Cole Memo on marijuana prosecutions and directed that federal marijuana prosecution decisions be governed by the same principles that have long governed all of our prosecution decisions,” U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer of the District of Colorado said in a statement on Thursday. “The United States Attorney’s Office in Colorado has already been guided by these principles in marijuana prosecutions – focusing in particular on identifying and prosecuting those who create the greatest safety threats to our communities around the state.  We will, consistent with the Attorney General’s latest guidance, continue to take this approach in all of our work with our law enforcement partners throughout Colorado.”