The Justice Department announced Aug. 29 it would not challenge 2012 voter initiatives that legalized small amounts of marijuana for recreational use in Colorado and Washington state, which became the first to authorize the drug for non-medicinal use. Twenty states and the District of Columbia have legalized the medical use of marijuana.
The Obama administration's ruling is "extremely unsettling," said Barrett Duke, vice president for public policy of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
"For it to decide to let the states establish their own laws on drug use signals its surrender on the war on drugs," Duke said of the administration. "All the other states in the union should be concerned about the federal government's willful disregard of federal drug laws and for the threat it poses to their ability to prevent the rise of drug use in their own states."
In a memorandum to all United States attorneys, the Justice Department said marijuana is still an illegal drug under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), the 1970 law on federal drug policy. The department instructed its attorneys to continue to enforce the CSA regarding marijuana on the basis of eight priorities established in recent years. Those priorities include barring distribution of marijuana to minor children and prohibiting cartels and gangs from profiting from the drug's sales.
Otherwise, the federal government will rely on states and local authorities to enforce their own laws regarding marijuana, according to the Justice Department.
The department said it has told the governors of Colorado and Washington it will not challenge their states' legalization of marijuana. Federal attorneys will prosecute individuals, however, if Colorado and Washington do not strictly regulate marijuana's possession, production and distribution, according to the department.
In addition to the ERLC's Duke, other opponents of marijuana's legalization criticized the Obama administration's action.
A coalition of law enforcement organizations expressed "extreme disappointment" with the Justice Department's refusal to challenge the laws in Colorado and Washington.
The action "ignores the connections between marijuana use and violent crime, the potential trafficking problems that could be created across state and local boundaries as a result of legalization, and the potential economic and social costs that could be incurred," according to an Aug. 30 letter from the heads of the organizations, which include the National Sheriff's Association and the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Marijuana use is involved in many of the annual 8,000 automobile accident deaths related to drivers under the influence of drugs, or "drugged driving deaths," the coalition said.
The law enforcement organizations also criticized the Justice Department for failing to consult with them. They said the decision not to challenge the new state laws "is an open invitation to other states to legalize marijuana in defiance of federal law."
Former Democratic Congressman Patrick Kennedy said in a written statement, "We can look forward to more drugged driving accidents, more school drop-outs, and poorer health outcomes as a new Big Marijuana industry targeting kids and minorities emerges to fuel the flames."
Kennedy is chairman of Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana).
Advocates for marijuana's legalization welcomed the Justice Department's announcement.
Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, called the action "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," he said in a written statement.
Among provisions of the Colorado and Washington laws is permission for adults 21 and older to possess as much as an ounce of marijuana.
President Obama signaled late last year his administration would be unlikely to challenge the laws approved in November by voters in the two states.
"We've got bigger fish to fry," Obama told ABC News in December. "It would not make sense for us to see a top priority as going after recreational users in states that have determined that it's legal."
With reporting by Baptist Press Assistant Editor Erin Roach. Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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