Justice Department Announces Update to Marijuana Enforcement Policy

HR & Safety

Connecticut’s medical marijuana program safe for now

Just as Connecticut authorities were giving final approval to the governing regulatory structure of use of medical marijuana under state law, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced an update to its federal marijuana enforcement policy. The feds’ move was, in part, a response to recent state ballot initiatives that legalize, under various states laws, the possession of small amounts of marijuana and provide for the regulation of marijuana production, processing, and sale. However, the announcement also provides reassurance to Connecticut officials that the state’s new medical marijuana program is unlikely to be a target for federal enforcement action.

In a new memorandum outlining the policy, the DOJ makes clear that marijuana remains an illegal drug under the Controlled Substances Act and that federal prosecutors will continue to aggressively enforce this statute. To this end, the department identifies eight enforcement areas that federal prosecutors should prioritize. These are the same enforcement priorities that have traditionally driven the DOJ’s efforts in this area.

Outside of these enforcement priorities, however, the federal government has traditionally relied on state and local authorizes to address marijuana activity through enforcement of their own narcotics laws. This guidance continues that policy.

For states such as Colorado and Washington that have enacted laws to authorize the production, distribution and possession of marijuana, the DOJ expects these states to establish strict regulatory schemes that protect the eight federal interests identified in the department’s guidance. These schemes must be tough in practice, not just on paper, and include strong, state-based enforcement efforts, backed by adequate funding. Based on assurances that those states will impose an appropriately strict regulatory system, the department has informed the governors of both states that it is deferring its right to challenge their legalization laws at this time. But if any of the stated harms do materialize: either despite a strict regulatory scheme or because of the lack of one: federal prosecutors will act aggressively to bring individual prosecutions focused on federal enforcement priorities and the DOJ may challenge the regulatory scheme themselves in these states.

In an Aug. 29 Hartford Courant article, William Rubenstein, commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Consumer Protection, which oversees the medical marijuana program, expressed confidence that Connecticut’s tightly regulated program will assure that medical marijuana will only be used for medical practice and thus will not invite federal interference.

In the same Courant article, Connecticut State Attorney General George Jepsen was quoted as saying, “We believe that the program developed by the state Department of Consumer Protection is precisely the sort of robust and tightly controlled regulatory scheme that the [Department of Justice] has announced would likely fall outside its enforcement priorities,”

Read the memorandum, sent to all United States Attorneys by Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole.

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