Feds won't sue to stop marijuana use in two states

WASHINGTON (AP) — Despite 75 years of federal marijuana prohibition, the Justice Department said Thursday that states can

let people use the drug, license people to grow it and even allow adults to stroll into stores and buy it — as long as the

weed is kept away from kids, the black market and federal property.

In a sweeping new policy statement prompted

by pot legalization votes in Washington and Colorado last fall, the

department

gave the green light to states to adopt tight regulatory schemes

to oversee the medical and recreational marijuana industries

burgeoning across the country.

The action, welcomed by supporters of

legalization, could set the stage for more states to legalize marijuana.

Alaska is scheduled

to vote on the question next year, and a few other states plan

similar votes in 2016.

The policy change embraces what Justice Department officials called a "trust but verify" approach between the federal government

and states that enact recreational drug use.

In a memo to all 94 U.S. attorneys' offices

around the country, Deputy Attorney General James Cole said the federal

government

expects that states and local governments authorizing

"marijuana-related conduct" will implement strong and effective

regulatory

and enforcement systems that address the threat those state laws

could pose to public health and safety.

"If state enforcement efforts are not

sufficiently robust ... the federal government may seek to challenge the

regulatory

structure itself," the memo stated. States must ensure "that they

do not undermine federal enforcement priorities," it added.

The U.S. attorney in Colorado, John Walsh, said he will continue to focus on whether Colorado's system has the resources and

tools necessary to protect key federal public safety interests.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said the

state is working to improve education and prevention efforts directed at

young people

and on enforcement tools to prevent access to marijuana by those

under age 21. Colorado also is determined to keep marijuana

businesses from being fronts for criminal enterprises or other

illegal activity, he said, and the state is committed to preventing

the export of marijuana while also enhancing efforts to keep state

roads safe from impaired drivers.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee also laid out guidelines for marijuana entrepreneurs.

"If you don't sell this product to children, if you keep violent crime away from your business, if you pay your taxes and

you don't use this as a front for illicit activity, we're going to be able to move forward," Inslee said.

Under the new federal policy, the

government's top investigative priorities range from preventing the

distribution of marijuana

to minors to preventing sales revenue from going to criminal

enterprises, gangs and cartels and preventing the diversion of

marijuana outside of states where it is legal.

Other top-priority enforcement areas include

stopping state-authorized marijuana activity from being used as a cover

for trafficking

other illegal drugs and preventing violence and the use of

firearms in the cultivation and distribution of marijuana. The

top areas also include preventing drugged driving, preventing

marijuana cultivation and possession on federal property.

The Justice Department memo says it will

take a broad view of the federal priorities. For example, in preventing

the distribution

of marijuana to minors, enforcement could take place when

marijuana trafficking takes place near an area associated with minors,

or when marijuana is marketed in an appealing manner to minors or

diverted to minors.

Following the votes in Colorado and

Washington last year, Attorney General Eric Holder launched a review of

marijuana enforcement

policy that included an examination of the two states. The issue

was whether they should be blocked from operating marijuana

markets on the grounds that actively regulating an illegal

substance conflicts with federal drug law that bans it.

Peter Bensinger, a former head of the Drug

Enforcement Administration, said the conflict between federal and state

law is

clear and can't be reconciled. Federal law is paramount, and

Holder is "not only abandoning the law, he's breaking the law.

He's not only shirking his duty, he's not living up to his oath of

office," Bensinger said.

Last December, President Barack Obama said

it doesn't make sense for the federal government to go after

recreational drug

users in a state that has legalized marijuana. Last week, the

White House said that prosecution of drug traffickers remains

an important priority.

A Pew Research Center poll in March found

that 60 percent of Americans think the federal government shouldn't

enforce federal

anti-marijuana laws in states where its use has been approved.

Younger people, who tend to vote more Democratic, are especially

prone to that view. But opponents are worried these moves will

lead to more use by young people. Colorado and Washington were

states that helped re-elect Obama.

Advocates of medical marijuana were cautious

about the new policy. Twenty states and the District of Columbia have

enacted

laws that effectively allow patients to access and use medical

marijuana. Threats of criminal prosecution and asset forfeiture

by U.S. attorneys have closed more than 600 dispensaries in

California, Colorado and Washington over the past two years, said

Americans for Safe Access, which advocates for safe and legal

access to therapeutic cannabis.

Dan Riffle of the Marijuana Policy Project,

the nation's largest marijuana policy organization, called the policy

change "a

major and historic step toward ending marijuana prohibition" and

"a clear signal that states are free to determine their own

policies."

Kevin Sabet, the director of Project Smart

Approaches to Marijuana, an anti-legalization group, predicted the new

Justice

Department policy will accelerate a national discussion about

legalization because people will see its harms — including more

drugged driving and higher high school dropout rates.

Kristi Kelly, a co-founder of three medical marijuana shops near Denver, said the Justice Department's action is a step in

the right direction.

"We've been operating in a gray area for a long time. We're looking for some sort of concrete assurances that this industry

is viable," she said.

A national trade group, the National

Cannabis Industry Association, said it hopes steps will be taken to

allow marijuana establishments

access to banking services. Federally insured banks are barred

from taking money from marijuana businesses because the drug

is still banned by the federal government.