Pro-pot activists celebrated the Department of Justice’s decision Thursday to not sue Washington and Colorado for permitting recreational marijuana use. They’re going as far as comparing it to the end of Prohibition.
The big question facing states that legalized marijuana was how their local laws would work given the pot’s federal classification as a Schedule 1 drug. Well now they’ve gotten a response.
The federal government is saying it will walk away from prosecuting marijuana crimes as long as the states that have legalized it have a regulatory system in place for the drug’s growth and dissemination. With that, Colorado and Washington are able to legalize and regulate marijuana use without interference from the Feds, and more states may follow.
“The message to not only Washington and Colorado but to states around the country is that the federal government is no longer going to dictate marijuana policy to the states,” says Dan Rifle, federal policy director at the Marijuana Policy Project. “They’re free to chart their own course on marijuana. It’s really, in a lot of ways, the beginning of the end marijuana prohibition.”
Attorney General Eric Holder said that the Justice Department will use a “trust but verify” policy, in which the federal government won’t step in to prevent the implementation of the marijuana laws if the states develop a sound, workable regulatory structure. What exactly constitutes a “workable regulatory structure,” however, would be up to the DOJ to determine.
The Justice Department also said it would continue to enforce certain restrictions on marijuana such as the distribution of marijuana to minors, the use of violence or firearms in the distribution of the drug, or the sale of marijuana to fund gangs or cartels for prosecution. Basically they’d be treating it like the other legalized and commercialized drugs we all know and love.
Next year, Oregon and Alaska are likely to see ballot-initiated marijuana votes. And in 2016, the Marijuana Policy Project is aiming to get similar measures on the ballot in five more states: California, Oregon, Arizona, Nevada, and Maine–all states in which at good portion of its citizens support its legalization.
President Obama said that his administration did not view the prosecution of pot users in states that have legalized it as a top priority. “We’ve got bigger fish to fry,” Obama said last year. “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.”
If you flash back to the last time the United States had prohibition (officially 1919 to 1932), the state-by-state approach might seem familiar. For alcohol, the first state temperance law was passed in 1947; a dozen more states followed as the movement gained steam before the Volestead Act and the 18th Amendment became official in 1919. In the coming years, it’s possible we’ll see similar chain of events. Only this time, they’ll be working for legalization.
A further comparison can be drawn between the attitudes towards alcohol during official Prohibition and pot now. In both cases, it was officially illegal but perfectly common in day-to-day life. It only took so many speakeasies before the government threw in the towel and figured ‘if you can’t beat them, tax them.’
On the subject of dollars, some estimates suggest that legalizing marijuana and taxing it could bring in $9 billion in a year in state and federal tax revenues and save roughly the same amount on law enforcement costs. ”At this point it’s clear to everyone in Washington that legalizing, taxing and regulating marijuana is a matter of when, not if,” Riffle added.