Today, the federal government made clear that it does not currently intend to interfere with Colorado’s efforts to implement a system to regulate the cultivation, distribution and sale of marijuana to adults for recreational purposes.  Federal authorities also clarified their approach toward state-regulated medical marijuana industries.

Specifically, United States Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole issued a memorandum directed to all United States Attorneys, setting forth the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) policy toward marijuana businesses in states that have legalized marijuana for medical and/or recreational use.  The memorandum is cast as guidance for prioritizing the “limited investigative and prosecutorial resources” available to the federal government.

Like the two previous federal memoranda addressing state-level efforts to liberalize marijuana laws, which were issued in 2009 and 2011, today’s memorandum makes clear that marijuana remains illegal for all purposes under federal law, and that federal authorities will enforce federal drug laws where appropriate.  Particularly, the memorandum highlights eight enforcement priorities that will guide federal authorities:

•Preventing distribution of marijuana to minors;
•Preventing revenue from marijuana businesses from going to criminal organizations;
•Preventing diversion of marijuana from states where it is lawful to other states;
•Preventing state-authorized marijuana activities from being used as a pretext for other illegal activity;
•Preventing violence and use of firearms in the marijuana industry;
•Preventing driving under the influence of marijuana and other adverse public health consequences associated with marijuana use;
•Preventing cultivation of marijuana on public lands; and
•Preventing marijuana possession or use on federal property.

While the memorandum stresses that it does not change federal law, and does not bind federal authorities, it makes clear that federal authorities are at least willing to allow Colorado and Washington state an opportunity to implement “strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems that will address the threat those state laws could pose to public safety, public health, and other law enforcement interests.”  Federal authorities will watch the implementation of these regulatory regimes close, and, if they fail to live up to expectations, federal authorities may act.  If anything, this reinforces the importance of the process playing out at the state and local level in Colorado, as final regulations and procedures are developed and implemented to regulate the coming recreational marijuana industry.

Today’s memorandum also provides clarifying guidance concerning medical marijuana businesses, noting that they should not be an enforcement priority, regardless of their size or commercial nature, provided that the operation in question “is demonstrably in compliance with a strong and effective state regulatory system.”  This represents a reversal of policy guidance provided in the 2011 memorandum, which had drawn a distinction between medical marijuana patients and their caregivers, on the one hand, and large-scale, for profit commercial enterprises, on the other hand.  In some states, U.S. Attorneys had seized on this distinction to justify targeting large-scale medical marijuana businesses.  In Colorado, however, federal authorities have generally taken a hands-off approach toward state-regulated medical marijuana businesses, which seems even more likely to continue in light of today’s memorandum.

It is important to emphasize that today’s memorandum is nothing more than a statement of current policy. It is not law, and it binds no one.  U.S. Attorneys in various states may have differing interpretations of the policy guidance, which could lead to variations in enforcement from state to state.  If state-level regulatory regimes fail to live up to federal scrutiny, federal authorities could quickly change their approach.  Indeed, nothing prevents federal authorities from issuing new policy guidance down the road, which could reverse course.  For example, when a new presidential administration comes into office in 2017, it could choose to completely ignore the Obama administration’s approach, and instead aggressively enforce federal marijuana laws.

That said, the significance of today’s memorandum cannot be understated.  The previous two DOJ memoranda on state-sanctioned marijuana activities have had an enormous impact on the development of medical marijuana industries in a number of states.  In removing the most significant potential barrier to the full implementation of Amendment 64 (and Washington state’s similar measure), today’s memorandum will likely have a similarly profound impact.