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 could vote on the question next year, and a few other states plan similar votes in 2016.
The memo was greeted with optimism by Sonoma County medical marijuana advocates who said it would provide relief to local officials who feared federal liability for permitting dispensaries and provide a springboard for the next statewide ballot measure to legalize pot for recreational use.
"It's fantastic," said Omar Figueroa, a Sebastopol lawyer who has drafted legalization initiatives. "They are deciding that rather than remaining in denial and allowing a Wild West, laissez faire atmosphere, they will encourage ultra-regulated systems. That's huge."
Robert Jacob, executive director of Peace and Medicine dispensaries in Sebastopol and Santa Rosa, said it will save taxpayer money on enforcement while ensuring access to medical marijuana patients.
Jacob, who is also Sebastopol's vice-mayor, said elected officials in other cities who have rejected pot dispensaries might now reconsider. In Sonoma County, dispensaries are permitted in three of nine cities and the unincorporated county area.
"This is exciting news for a lot of people," said Jacobs. "I'm happy to see the federal government has made a decision to honor state and local laws."
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.