In a memo sent Thursday to U.S. attorneys in all 50 states, Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole detailed the administration’s new stance, even as he reiterated that marijuana remains illegal under federal law.
A Justice Department official said that Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. had called the governors of Colorado and Washington around noon Thursday to inform them of the administration’s stance.
The official said Holder also told them that federal prosecutors would be watching closely as the two states put in place a regulatory framework for marijuana in their states, and that prosecutors would be taking a “trust but verify” approach. The official said the Justice Department reserves the right to revisit the issue.
Washington state and Colorado last fall approved initiatives to decriminalize the possession of less than an ounce of marijuana. Those laws go beyond provisions for the medical use of marijuana. The District and 18 states have passed laws making it legal to manufacture, distribute and possess marijuana for medicinal purposes.
Until Thursday, the Justice Department and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy had remained silent about those initiatives, despite repeated requests for guidance from state officials.
Obama told ABC News’s Barbara Walters in a December interview that recreational pot smoking in states that have legalized the drug is not a major concern for his administration.
“We’ve got bigger fish to fry,” Obama said. “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.”
The issue has been percolating since Obama took office, and he has repeatedly faced questions about the tension between differing federal and state laws.
When the White House created an online petition program called “We the People” in 2011, marijuana-related petitions were so prevalent that the administration issued four responses to 13 petitions, which had garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures.