DOJ Won’t Challenge State Recreational Marijuana Laws, Providing Big Boost to Cannabis Industry

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The Department of Justice said today it will not seek to block or substantially alter adult-use marijuana laws in Colorado and Washington State at this time, a major win for the cannabis industry that signals a tipping point in the government’s approach to the drug.

Attorney General Eric Holder told the governors of both states that the DOJ will take a hands-off approach to the new recreational cannabis programs for now and will work closely with them to ensure regulations on the industry address any federal concerns. The DOJ also issued new guidelines for federal prosecutors when it comes to enforcing marijuana laws, saying they should focus mainly on crimes such as the distribution of marijuana to minors, driving while intoxicated, drug trafficking by gangs and cartels, and marijuana cultivation on public lands.

The development could have a sizable impact on both the medical and adult-use marijuana industries, clearing the way for the continued growth of the cannabis business and opening the door for legalization in more states down the road. It’s also expected to eventually relieve pressure on MMJ businesses, easing the future threat of raids, civil forfeiture warnings and other federal actions.

The guidelines are particularly notable in that they ostensibly pave the way for legit, reputable businesses that are in compliance with state marijuana laws – both on the recreational and medical sides. In essence, they extend “limited protection for growers, sellers and distributors rather than solely consumers, as has been the unstated policy until this point,” according to a release by Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a nonprofit organization that lobbies for drug reform.

Still, professionals should move forward cautiously – though optimistically – as the announcement doesn’t change federal drug laws, and the government has released similar directives in the past only to crack down on the medical marijuana industry. The feds also left open the possibility of intervention if the states’ regulatory programs fail to prevent threats to “public safety, public health an other law enforcement interests.”

However, the situation could be different this time around because the latest DOJ directive covers the business community instead of just patients.

Many cannabis leaders rejoiced when hearing the news but also said much work remains to improve the situation for the cannabis industry, particularly in the area of banking – which the latest announcements by the DOJ don’t cover.

A sampling of comments:

“We are encouraged by today’s response from the Obama administration. 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. Cannabis-related businesses in these states are creating thousands of jobs and generating tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue. These are clear public benefits.” – Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association.

“This is a historic step forward for our country. If the Department of Justice stays true to their word, we will see these state experiments with marijuana move forward unhindered by federal law enforcement.” – Erik Altieri, communications director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

“Today’s announcement is a major and historic step toward ending marijuana prohibition. The Department of Justice’s decision to allow implementation of the laws in Colorado and Washington is a clear signal that states are free to determine their own policies with respect to marijuana.” – Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project.

Cannabis professionals also chimed in, with some saying they plan to celebrate tonight.

“This will be the beginning of a cannabis revolution that will change the world, change the economy, create thousands of jobs, and may put an end to our drug cartels we’ve come to loathe,” KC Stark, founder of several cannabis-related companies in Colorado, said in a release.