Federal government will not challenge state laws on marijuana

BMJ 2013; 347 doi: (Published 04 September 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f5437
  1. Owen Dyer
  1. 1Montreal

The US federal government will not attempt to legally challenge state laws permitting recreational or medical marijuana use, the Department of Justice said this week.

Attorney General Eric Holder called the governors of Colorado and Washington and told them that federal authorities would not stand in their way as they implement last year’s ballot initiatives, which legalized recreational marijuana use and provided for state regulation and taxation.

Deputy Attorney General James Cole issued guidelines in a memorandum for all US attorneys, which advised prosecutors in states that permit medical or recreational marijuana to focus their efforts on specific federal priorities: diversion of marijuana to minors; sale of legal marijuana to fund criminal gangs or as cover for other illegal activity; use of guns and violence; drugged driving; and growing marijuana on public lands or transporting it to states where it is illegal. Growing and distribution operations that transgress in these areas are the ones that should be considered for federal prosecution, Cole wrote.

The Justice Department’s guidance, the memo said, rested on its expectation that states would provide “strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems to control the cultivation, distribution, sale, and possession of marijuana.”

A robustly regulated state system of legalized marijuana distribution might even serve federal priorities, the memo argued, “by, for example…prohibiting access to marijuana by minors, and replacing an illicit marijuana trade that funds criminal enterprises with a tightly regulated market.”

Several groups advocating marijuana legalization said that they were surprised by the extent of the shift in federal thinking revealed by the document.

In the case of medical marijuana, the memo explicitly overturned previous policy in advising prosecutors to “not consider the size or commercial nature of a marijuana operation alone as a proxy” when judging whether it threatened federal priorities and merited prosecution. The guidance is likely to be seen as a green light by larger investors who had been nervous about entering a potentially vast but precarious industry.


Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f5437


  • Feature: The growth of medical marijuana (BMJ 2013;347:f4755, doi: 10.1136/bmj.f4755)

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