Officials at several governmental levels in Colorado have been wondering for months if their efforts to put marijuana cultivation and sales into some kind of regulatory framework would turn out to be a waste of time. Last November, Colorado voters (and those in Washington state) approved the use of small amounts of marijuana for recreational use along with taxing the industry. Those states, and 18 others, previously approved the use of marijuana for medical purposes. When would Washington invoke federal laws, which prohibit marijuana use, growing and selling, to bring state approvals to a halt? Members of both parties in Colorado felt the uncertainty.
Making the work during these months particularly challenging was that officials generally were less than enthusiastic about the task, which blazed controversial new ground in making possible expanded drug use. Education was needed, different age groups felt differently, and there were different degrees of acceptance of marijuana depending on geographic location. Many local governments just said “no,” rather than puzzling over details.
No doubt, many hoped that a clear statement from the federal government would bring state-approved marijuana use to a quick end.
It did not turn out that way.
Two weeks ago, the Justice Department’s deputy attorney general announced that the department would not sue to overturn states’ laws permitting recreational and medical use of marijuana. The pass, however, does not mean that states may permit the industry to go completely unregulated.
In the memo, the Justice Department set a broad requirement that whatever happens does not foster “adverse public-health consequences.” If that does happen, the federal government could “challenge the regulatory structure” and could step in to bring criminal charges against offending marijuana businesses. According to a story in The New York Times, in the memo, the federal government does not want to see marijuana growing and sales associated with minors, gangs or cartels, interstate trafficking or violence or accidents.
States and local governments could easily want to impose more narrow limitations and they probably will, but the federal language finally gives local governments an understanding of the Justice Department’s overarching stance on the issue.
Regulation writers will be redoubling their efforts as they should. Like it or not, Colorado voters approved the use of recreational and medical marijuana, and there is now the obligation to set no greater than reasonable limitations on its accessibility.