Washington and Colorado voters created a quandary for the US Justice Department last fall when they chose to legalize recreational marijuana. While the drug is still banned under federal law, marijuana-related offenses generally are addressed under state laws. Wisely, the Department of Justice announced late last month that it won’t sue states to block their legalization measures — and will instead take a more limited role of keeping marijuana from crossing state borders or into federal land, and from getting into the hands of children.
This approach will help remove the uncertainty about the legal status of marijuana vendors, who would otherwise be subject to raids by federal agents. When state law winks at or explicitly allows marijuana, residents will surely feel less inhibited about using it. But if there is no legal supply, those users are bound to turn to illegal sources. Allowing legal vendors to operate should take money out of the pockets of dangerous traffickers while accepting the judgment of Washington and Colorado voters.
It comes as no surprise that the federal government was slow to settle on an approach. While a number of states have legalized medical marijuana, there’s been relatively little state-to-state variation in policies toward recreational use.
Attorney General Eric Holder aptly calls his department’s new approach “trust but verify”: The US government will largely defer to state law but still intends to protect public health and federal policy interests. Many other states will be watching Washington and Colorado closely, and the Justice Department’s approach will let those experiments play out without allowing them to be exported to unwilling neighboring states.