Seven Democrats from Washington's congressional delegation called on U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder this week to consider the results of last year's election as he determines how the Department of Justice will respond to the state's successful marijuana legalization effort.
"As federal representatives of these states we request that your Department's course of action in this matter respect the will of the voters, and that you announce this course of action as soon as possible to assure our citizens that they will not be penalized by the federal government for activities legal under state law," the letter, signed by the state's two senators and five of its congresspeople, read. "[W]e hope that you will exercise your significant discretionary authority by choosing not to purse preemption of these laws, or prosecute our residents and state employees acting in compliance with these laws."
In November, Washington voters passed I-502, an initiative that legalized marijuana for recreational use and began the process of setting up a system of taxation and regulation. Colorado also passed a similar measure, Amendment 64. Both were approved by a margin of more than 10 percent.
The moves have left Holder and the DOJ to make a decision about how the administration will treat these states that now openly flout federal law, which considers cannabis an illegal Schedule I substance. In February, Holder said an announcement was coming "soon." Nearly four months later, there has been no visible movement.
As HuffPost's Ryan Grim and Ryan J. Reilly reported earlier this year, some experts believe the DOJ will decide to treat the newer recreational marijuana laws differently than state medical marijuana laws. While medical marijuana laws are seen as a somewhat limited encroachment on federal policy, many officials within Holder's department and the Drug Enforcement Administration consider recreational marijuana laws to be a full-out assault on federal law:
The Justice Department may respond to the legalization of recreational marijuana in Washington and Colorado in several ways. One option would be to go after low-level marijuana users as scapegoats and seek a court ruling that would declare federal law trumps state law. One of the more extreme options, which officials acknowledge is currently being weighed by the department's Civil Division, would be to preempt the laws by suing the states in the same way the feds sued Arizona over its harsh immigration law. Federal authorities could sue Washington and Colorado on the basis that any effort to regulate marijuana would violate the federal Controlled Substances Act.
Perhaps aware of that possibility, the Washington Democrats touted the steps the state already had taken to ensure the legitimacy of the legal marijuana industry and urged restraint from Holder.
“During a time of constrained federal resources, we believe DOJ has higher priorities than the pursuit of legal action against persons in compliance with the laws of the states,” the letter read. “We expect and encourage your continued prosecution of activities that occur outside the bounds of state law.”
As the Seattle Times reports, the public statement by the federal lawmakers is likely to help shore up support from pot advocates who had expressed frustration at their general silence on the issue.