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Federal Prison Population Too Big To Employ Even A Quarter Of Them

Ryan J. Reilly   |   September 18, 2013   12:07 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- The federal prison population has grown so large that the federal Bureau of Prisons can no longer reasonably expect to meet its goal of employing a quarter of prisoners, according to an internal Justice Department review.

Government-owned Federal Prison Industries operates 83 facilities staffed by federal inmates, who make products like office furniture and military apparel for federal agencies. But since 2009, FPI has been losing an average of $31 million per year, despite average net sales of $753 million. Additionally, it employs just 7 percent of the total federal inmate population, the lowest percentage in over 75 years.

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DOJ's inspector general found that FPI hasn't been employing as many inmates because it has been trying to make up for declining revenues, which officials blamed on the fact that it is no longer mandatory for federal agencies to purchase certain products from FPI, the winding-down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the general economic downturn. While the federal inmate population "has steadily grown, FPI inmate employment has steadily decreased," the report found.

The review said that FPI's long-standing goal of employing a quarter of the total inmate population "was no longer representative of current conditions, in part because of the rise in BOP's total inmate population." Hitting that percentage in June 2012 would have required the FPI to employ 44,000 inmates, about three times as many as it actually had on the payroll.

Additionally, DOJ's inspector general reported that 13 percent of inmates were not U.S. citizens, and that a small number of those -- 37 of the 1,580 non-U.S. citizen inmates -- had been issued final removal orders and were not eligible to work for the FPI.

Leslie Caldwell Is Obama's Nominee To Head DOJ's Criminal Division

Ryan J. Reilly   |   September 17, 2013    5:11 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama has nominated the former head of the Justice Department's Enron Task Force to head DOJ's Criminal Division.

Leslie Caldwell, now a partner at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP, would replace former Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, who departed in March.

Here's her bio, courtesy of the White House:

Leslie R. Caldwell is a partner at Morgan Lewis & Bockius LLP, a position she has had since 2004. From 2004 to 2009, Ms. Caldwell was Co-Chair of the firm's Corporate Investigations and White Collar Practice Group. She previously served as Director of the Department of Justice (DOJ) Enron Task Force from 2002 to 2004. From 1999 to 2002, she worked at the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of California, where she served as Chief of the Criminal Division and Securities Fraud Section. From 1987 to 1998, she served in several roles in the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York, ultimately serving as Senior Trial Counsel for the Business & Securities Fraud Section and Chief of the Violent Criminal Enterprises Section. For her work on the DOJ Enron Task Force, Ms. Caldwell received the Attorney General's Award for Exceptional Service. She is also the recipient of the Attorney General's John Marshall Award for Trial of Litigation and the Attorney General's Award for Fraud Prevention. Ms. Caldwell received a B.A. in Economics from Pennsylvania State University and a J.D. from George Washington University Law School.

Ryan J. Reilly   |   September 12, 2013    3:34 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- Newly installed FBI Director James Comey said this week that sequestration is having a "huge impact" on the ability of the FBI to accomplish its mission.

Comey, visiting an FBI field office in Richmond, Va., said he didn't think the public knew enough about the effects the budget cuts are having on the agency.

"I was very surprised to learn about the impacts that sequestration is having on the FBI," Comey said. "Not only am I having to lose 3,000 positions, but there's a very real prospect, unless something is done, that I'm going to have to send home, for two weeks without pay, the good men and women who work in this building behind me."

As NPR reports, former FBI Director Robert Mueller said that sequestration would mean moving resources away from violent crime and white-collar business fraud since national security and cyberthreats were more of a priority. Sequestration will require the FBI to cut about $700 million from its $8 billion budget, and furloughs for the FBI's 36,000 employees could begin next month, NBC News reports.

John Carlin Nominated To Top DOJ National Security Post

Ryan J. Reilly   |   September 10, 2013    8:32 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- John P. Carlin, the acting assistant attorney in charge of the Justice Department's National Security Division, was nominated by President Barack Obama to take over the role on a permanent basis on Tuesday.

Carlin has been serving as DOJ's top national security lawyer since March, when he took over for Lisa Monaco, who moved on to become the president's chief counterterrorism advisor.

Here's Carlin's biography, courtesy of the White House:

John P. Carlin is the Acting Assistant Attorney General for National Security at the Department of Justice (DOJ), a position he has held since March 2013. In addition, he has been the Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General and Chief of Staff for the National Security Division since 2011. From 2007 to 2011, he served in leadership roles at the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), ultimately serving as Chief of Staff to FBI Director Robert S. Mueller, III. A career federal prosecutor, he served in 2007 as National Coordinator of the Computer Hacking and Intellectual Property program within the DOJ Criminal Division. From 2001 to 2006, he served as an Assistant United States Attorney for the District of Columbia. Mr. Carlin first joined DOJ through the Attorney General's Honors Program in 1999. He is a five-time recipient of the Department of Justice Award for Special Achievement. He received a B.A. from Williams College and a J.D. from Harvard Law School.

No 'Free Pass' For Marijuana Industry

Ryan J. Reilly   |   September 10, 2013    6:37 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- Justice Department officials did not believe they could successfully prevent states from legalizing marijuana in federal court and feared that successfully blocking states' marijuana regulatory systems would lead to chaos, Deputy Attorney General James Cole said Tuesday.

Cole, the No. 2 official at the Justice Department and author of the Aug. 29 memo on the federal government's new approach to marijuana prosecutions, explained the thinking of DOJ officials before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. He said DOJ officials concluded it would be "very challenging" to successfully bring a lawsuit preempting state decriminalization. And while they might be able to prevent a state from actually regulating marijuana, that would do more harm than good, Cole said.

"There are no perfect solutions here, and what we were faced with was a situation where we couldn't, we thought, be very successful in trying to preempt the decriminalization," Cole explained. "So if we just went after their regulatory scheme, instead of just having a bad one they'd have no regulatory scheme."

Cole said that DOJ was not giving "immunity" or "a free pass" to marijuana providers and promised that federal prosecutors would aggressively go after any cannabis distributors who bumped up against one of the eight federal priorities laid out in the Aug. 29 memo.

"When we see someone who is marketing marijuana in a way that is going to be attractive to minors, we're going to go after them. If we see someone who is growing or cultivating marijuana so that they can import it or export it out of state, we're going to go after them. If they're involved in drug cartels or illegal enterprises, we're going to go after them," Cole said.

Cole agreed that a current lack of banking services for state-legal marijuana providers remained an "issue that we need to deal with" and said that DOJ was working with federal banking authorities to clear a path to allow banks to work with cannabis providers without fear of prosecution. He also said the Drug Enforcement Administration is no longer instructing armored car companies not to work with cannabis providers.

During the hearing, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) aggressively questioned Cole about the "mess" that resulted from a 2009 memo from DOJ headquarters regarding medical marijuana. While that memo said U.S. attorneys around the country should not focus resources on pot shops in compliance with state laws, federal prosecutors went after medical marijuana dispensaries sometimes just based on their size.

Cole didn't directly address the confusion that resulted from the 2009 memo, but noted that his new memo had a "catch-all" at the end that would allow federal prosecutors to bring cases even when the defendants didn't violate any of the eight federal priorities.

"It's not meant to swallow the entire memo, but you can't anticipate everything that is going to come into the future, so there is an ability -- if it's an important enough matter that we hadn't anticipated -- to prosecute another kind of case even if it doesn't fall within the eight priorities," Cole said.

Several U.S. attorneys, who operate semi-autonomously, have already said that they don't believe Cole's new memo will change much about the types of marijuana prosecutions they bring.

In a statement to The Huffington Post, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California Benjamin Wagner -- who was one of the key players pushing back against the 2009 memo on medical marijuana prosecutions -- said the "vast majority" of the cases his office prosecuted in the past would still be brought under the new DOJ policy.

“This office has always prioritized cases involving key federal interests: protecting federal lands, disrupting international and multi-state drug trafficking organizations, and prosecuting cases involving the use of violence or firearms in the course of cultivation or distribution," Wagner said. "The vast majority of marijuana cases which we prosecute relate to these issues, and we will continue to handle such cases under the new guidance.”

Prosecutors Say DOJ Marijuana Memo Is No Big Deal

Ryan J. Reilly   |   September 9, 2013    5:04 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- When Attorney General Eric Holder announced on Aug. 29 that the Department of Justice would allow the states of Colorado and Washington to implement their marijuana legalization initiatives, law enforcement officials and a host of conservative lawmakers reacted with fury. Marijuana policy reform advocates celebrated, and the Senate Judiciary Committee is set to hold hearings on the new approach Tuesday.

One crucial group, however, has had an entirely different reaction -- the federal prosecutors who will be responsible for carrying out Holder's new directive. Several U.S. attorneys in states that have legalized medical or recreational marijuana have issued statements or given interviews about the Aug. 29 memo from Deputy Attorney General James Cole, which laid out several requirements for federal prosecutions involving marijuana. Their conclusion: the memo is no big deal.

The three-and-a-half-page Cole memo states that federal prosecutors should only bring marijuana prosecutions when the plant is being distributed to minors, when profits are flowing to criminal enterprises, when marijuana is being diverted to other states, when state-authorized marijuana activity is being used as a cover for the trafficking of other drugs, when violence is involved, when there are connections to drugged driving, when marijuana is being grown on public lands, and when preventing marijuana possession or use on federal property.

But interpreting the memo is up to individual U.S. attorneys, many of whom rebelled against a 2009 memo from the Justice Department on the prosecution of medical marijuana providers. And while a Justice Department official told reporters that complying with the guidance to U.S. attorneys was not voluntary, the memo leaves a lot of room for federal prosecutors to justify cases with only slight connections to one of the priority areas for federal prosecution.

Several of the U.S. attorneys said the memo wouldn't change the types of cases they've been bringing.

"I don't believe that it would have changed the manner in which we did our business over the last two or three years with respect to the marijuana prosecutions," said U.S. Attorney for Montana Mike Cotter, according to KGVO. "I think that it would have changed nothing with respect to those prosecutions or ultimate sentences."

“We looked at this and the conclusion was this doesn’t really change anything for us,” said Amanda Marshall, the U.S. Attorney for Oregon, according to The Oregonian. “We would still be prosecuting these same cases we have done in the past and the same cases we have open right now."

"The office is evaluating the new guidelines and for the most part it appears that the cases that have been brought in this district are already in compliance with the guidelines," a spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney for the District of Northern California Melinda Haag told the East Bay Express. "Therefore, we do not expect a significant change."

Haag's office is going after Harborside Health Clinic, an Oakland, Calif., pot shop billed as the world's largest cannabis store. Haag has previously indicated that her office is targeting the clinic based on its size, saying that larger operations are more likely to abuse the state's medical marijuana law. The new Cole memo specifically states that federal prosecutors are no longer allowed to use the sheer volume of sales of an operation as a trigger for prosecution.

In Colorado, U.S. Attorney John Walsh told the Colorado Springs Independent that his office is "continuing to prosecute large-scale drug traffickers, consistent with the Ogden and Cole memos. And so, inasmuch as that is consistent with what we've been doing in the past, I think there's not going to be a substantial change."

U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner of the Eastern District of California told the Associated Press that more than half of the cases his office prosecutes comply with the new criteria. He said the memo was intended to ensure better collaboration between state and federal officials. In California, Wagner said, "some cities and counties are banning [dispensaries], while others are licensing them and encouraging them. It's hard to see how the current system fits the description laid out in the memo."

How is it that both sides of the in the debate over marijuana legalization see the Justice Department announcement as a major event -- and a big enough deal that Holder personally briefed the governors of Washington and Colorado -- but the front-line prosecutors think business will carry on as usual? The answer lies in the political incentives that continue to drive the drug war forward, as prosecutors look for easy prosecutions of above-ground enterprises that make major local and national news. It's too good to bring to an end.

Obama Administration Makes Big Announcement About Gay Veterans

Ryan J. Reilly   |   September 4, 2013    3:05 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration has cleared the way for the spouses of gay veterans to receive military benefits, with the Justice Department declaring it will no longer enforce a provision of the law that states only heterosexual married couples are eligible.

Attorney General Eric Holder said in a Wednesday letter to congressional leaders that the Justice Department had determined the Supreme Court’s rationale in a decision overturning part of the Defense of Marriage Act should also apply to Title 38, the part of the U.S. code that governs veterans' benefits. Title 38 currently defines marriage as between a man and a woman, meaning that only heterosexual spouses receive the benefits, which include health care, disability and survival benefits and burials in national cemeteries.

Holder said last year that the Justice Department would no longer defend Title 38 in court. But Wednesday’s announcement went even further, with DOJ finding that the legal basis laid out by the Supreme Court in United States v. Windsor should nullify the marriage definition in the provision. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki said just last week that the spouses of gay veterans weren’t eligible for benefits because no court had found Title 38’s definitions to be unconstitutional.

“Decisions by the Executive Branch not to enforce federal laws are appropriately rare,” Holder wrote in the letter, adding that in this case it was appropriate given that the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group of the U.S. House of Representatives had withdrawn from pending litigation challenging the constitutionality of Title 38's constitutionality.

“The decision of the Supreme Court in Windsor reinforces the Executive’s conclusion that the Title 28 provisions are unconstitutional,” Holder wrote. Continued enforcement of Title 38 “would likely have a tangible adverse effect on the families of veterans and, in some circumstances, active-duty service members and reservists, with respect to survival, health care, home loan, and other benefits.”

A federal judge in Los Angeles ruled last week that a lesbian Army veteran and her spouse should be entitled to disability benefits.

"The continued unwinding of discrimination against legally married couples in the aftermath of the Windsor decision is a welcome development,” James Esseks, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Project, said in a statement. "The federal government is right to ensure that legally married couples, where a spouse has served valiantly in the military, are treated equally. Federal protections that come with marriage should apply to all who are married."

"As the Court said in Windsor, our Constitution does not permit the federal government to single out some married couples for unfair treatment, and today's announcement from the Justice Department rests solidly on that principle," Michael Cole-Schwartz of the Human Rights Campaign said in a statement. "For the brave men and women of our armed forces and their spouses to be denied benefits as veterans would be an insult to their service. The Obama administration is doing right by our veterans and faithfully executing the Supreme Court’s opinion and we look forward to guidance as to how the VA will treat veterans and their spouses living in states that do not recognize their marriages."

Read Holder’s letter below:

Eric Holder Title 38 Letter

This story has been updated with comment from advocates at the ACLU and the Human Rights Campaign.

Cautious Optimism After New DOJ Marijuana Guidelines

Ryan J. Reilly   |   August 29, 2013    4:16 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- Drug policy reformers reacted with cautious optimism on Thursday over the Justice Department's decision to allow Washington and Colorado to regulate recreational marijuana without facing a federal lawsuit.

Attorney General Eric Holder informed the governors of Washington and Colorado about the decision on Thursday, while Deputy Attorney General James Cole issued a memo to U.S. attorneys throughout the country that outlined the types of cases that federal prosecutors should focus their resources on.

The guidelines make it less likely that DOJ will prosecute marijuana operations that comply with state laws, though they leave federal prosecutors with a significant amount of leeway to decide when a case is worthy of federal attention.

Ezekiel Edwards, director of the ACLU's Criminal Law Reform Project, called the guidance "one more concrete step towards more sensible drug policy in this country."

"We support the attorney general's decision not to interfere with individuals and entities that are complying with state marijuana laws, thereby respecting states' voter-approved and common-sense approaches to regulating marijuana," Edwards said. "As the DOJ guidance makes clear, if states and local governments that have enacted laws legalizing marijuana create strong and effective regulatory systems, the federal government will defer to them to enforce those systems."

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who asked Attorney General Eric Holder to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee about its approach to legalization in Washington and Colorado, said the guidance was overdue.

“I welcome the fact that the Justice Department has now provided this direction as we near the Judiciary Committee’s hearing on the variation between state and federal marijuana laws. Our oversight on this issue was intended to provide movement on this policy question. All the more in a time when federal resources are especially scarce, the Justice Department should focus on countering and prosecuting violent crime, while respecting the will of the states whose people have voted to legalize small amounts of marijuana for personal and medical use," Leahy stated.

Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, called it a "major and historic step toward ending marijuana prohibition."

"The Department of Justice's decision to allow implementation of the laws in Colorado and Washington is a clear signal that states are free to determine their own policies with respect to marijuana," Riffle said.

Aaron Smith, the executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, said the group was encouraged by the guidelines.

"At the heart of the guidance is a willingness to respect the voters who have decided a regulated marijuana market is preferable to a criminal market in their states. Cannabis-related businesses in these states are creating thousands of jobs and generating tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue. These are clear public benefits," Smith said.

Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said the announcement "demonstrates the sort of political vision and foresight from the White House we’ve been seeking for a long time.”

“I must admit, I was expecting a yellow light from the White House. But this light looks a lot more green-ish than I had hoped. The White House is basically saying to Washington and Colorado, 'Proceed with caution,'" Nadelmann said.

Tom Angell of Marijuana Majority cautioned that it "remains to be seen how individual U.S. attorneys will interpret the new guidance and whether they will continue their efforts to close down marijuana businesses that are operating in accordance with state law."

"It's significant that U.S. attorneys will no longer be able to use the size or profitability of a legal marijuana business to determine whether or not it should be a target for prosecution, but the guidelines seem to leave some leeway for the feds to continue making it hard for state-legal marijuana providers to do business," Angell told The Huffington Post.

U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington Jenny Durkan said in a statement that the DOJ guidance was "premised on the expectation that the state will implement strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems."

"This also is what Washington voters were promised, and we expect no less today. I look forward to meeting with state leaders to hear how the promises of enhanced public safety will be met," Durkan said.

U.S. Attorney John Walsh of Colorado said his office was going to focus on "cases involving marijuana trafficking directly or indirectly to children and young people; trafficking that involves violence or other federal criminal activity; trafficking conducted or financed by street gangs and drug cartels; cultivation of marijuana on Colorado’s extensive state and federal public lands; and trafficking across state and international lines."

"In addition, because the Department of Justice’s guidance emphasizes the central importance of strong and effective state marijuana regulatory systems, the U.S. Attorney’s Office will continue to focus on whether Colorado’s system, when it is implemented, has the resources and tools necessary to protect those key federal public safety interests," Walsh said.

Obama Administration Makes Big Announcement On Marijuana Legalization

Ryan J. Reilly   |   August 29, 2013    1:29 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- The United States government took a historic step back from its long-running drug war on Thursday, when Attorney General Eric Holder informed the governors of Washington and Colorado that the Department of Justice would allow the states to create a regime that would regulate and implement the ballot initiatives that legalized the use of marijuana for adults.

A Justice Department official said that Holder told the governors in a joint phone call early Thursday afternoon that the department would take a "trust but verify approach" to the state laws. DOJ is reserving its right to file a preemption lawsuit at a later date, since the states' regulation of marijuana is illegal under the Controlled Substances Act.

Deputy Attorney General James Cole also issued a three-and-a-half page memo to U.S. attorneys across the country. "The Department's guidance in this memorandum rests on its expectation that states and local governments that have enacted laws authorizing marijuana-related conduct will 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," it reads. "A system adequate to that task must not only contain robust controls and procedures on paper; it must also be effective in practice."

The memo also outlines eight priorities for federal prosecutors enforcing marijuana laws. According to the guidance, DOJ will still prosecute individuals or entities to prevent:

  • the distribution of marijuana to minors;
  • revenue from the sale of marijuana from going to criminal enterprises, gangs and cartels;
  • the diversion of marijuana from states where it is legal under state law in some form to other states;
  • state-authorized marijuana activity from being used as a cover or pretext for the trafficking of other illegal drugs or other illegal activity;
  • violence and the use of firearms in the cultivation and distribution of marijuana
  • drugged driving and the exacerbation of other adverse public health consequences associated with marijuana use;
  • growing of marijuana on public lands and the attendant public safety and environmental dangers posed by marijuana production on public lands;
  • preventing marijuana possession or use on federal property.

The eight high-priority areas leave prosecutors bent on targeting marijuana businesses with a fair amount of leeway, especially the exception for "adverse public health consequences." And prosecutors have shown a willingness to aggressively interpret DOJ guidance in the past, as the many medical marijuana dispensary owners now behind bars can attest.

U.S. Attorneys will individually be responsible for interpreting the guidelines and how they apply to a case they intend to prosecute. A Justice Department official said, for example, that a U.S Attorney could go after marijuana distributors who used cartoon characters in their marketing because that could be interpreted as attempting to distribute marijuana to minors.

But the official stressed that the guidance was not optional, and that prosecutors would no longer be allowed to use the sheer volume of sales or the for-profit status of an operation as triggers for prosecution, though these factors could still affect their prosecutorial decisions.

The Obama administration has struggled with the legalization of medical marijuana in several states. Justice Department Officials had instructed federal prosecutors across the country not to focus federal resources on individuals who were complying with state laws regarding the use of medical marijuana. But the U.S. attorneys in several states that had legalized medical marijuana rebelled, and what was known as the Ogden memo faced stiff resistance from career prosecutors.

"That's just not what they do,” one former Justice official told HuffPost. “They prosecute people."

As a result of the internal pushback at DOJ, a new memo was issued by Deputy Attorney General James Cole in 2011 that gave U.S. attorneys more cover to go after medical marijuana distributors. Federal prosecutors began threatening local government officials with prosecution if they went forward with legislation regulating medical cannabis.

After recreational marijuana initiatives passed in Washington and Colorado in November, President Barack Obama said the federal government had “bigger fish to fry” and would not make going after marijuana users a priority.

Holder said back in December that the federal response to the passage of the state ballot measures would be coming “relatively soon.”

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson told HuffPost his office was preparing for the “worst-case scenario” of a federal lawsuit against the law.

UPDATE: 6:15 p.m. -- Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), who'd been pressing Holder to make a decision and respect the will of the states' voters, applauded the move, saying in a statement that "the Justice Department should focus on countering and prosecuting violent crime, while respecting the will of the states whose people have voted to legalize small amounts of marijuana for personal and medical use." He had previously scheduled a hearing on the issue for Sept. 10.

At issue will be how the U.S. Attorneys will implement the directive. John Walsh, the lead prosecutor for the District of Colorado, has previously aggressively interpreted guidance from Justice higher-ups and targeted medical marijuana dispensaries that were not accused of breaking any state laws, like those that were operating near schools. His reaction Thursday to Holder's announcement might not give Colorado business owners much confidence that he intends to modify his approach.

"Of particular concern to the U.S. Attorney’s Office are cases involving marijuana trafficking directly or indirectly to children and young people; trafficking that involves violence or other federal criminal activity; trafficking conducted or financed by street gangs and drug cartels; cultivation of marijuana on Colorado’s extensive state and federal public lands; and trafficking across state and international lines," Walsh said. "In addition, because the Department of Justice’s guidance emphasizes the central importance of strong and effective state marijuana regulatory systems, the U.S. Attorney’s Office will continue to focus on whether Colorado’s system, when it is implemented, has the resources and tools necessary to protect those key federal public safety interests. To accomplish these goals, we look forward to closely working with our federal, state and local partners."

For more reaction to DOJ's directive, click here. Read the full memo from Deputy Attorney General James Cole below:

DAGMemo8-29-13

CORRECTION: A previous version of this report stated that Walsh had ignored guidance from higher-ups at Justice Department headquarters in Washington by going after medical marijuana dispensaries operating near schools. In fact, Deputy Attorney General James Cole had signed off on the school initiatives program and said it was a "bright line" for DOJ in a Sept. 2012 interview with "60 Minutes." In his new memo, Cole said that DOJ's goal of preventing marijuana from being distributed to minors would justify crackdowns on marijuana distribution in "an area associated with minors."

Ryan J. Reilly   |   August 26, 2013    1:35 PM ET

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has invited Attorney General Eric Holder to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee next month about the Justice Department's planned approach toward the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington, Leahy's office announced Monday.

The announcement came exactly six months after Holder said the federal response was coming "relatively soon."

The Obama administration has often been criticized for cracking down on medical marijuana, even in states that have legalized its use. Last week, the White House confirmed that President Barack Obama doesn't support any changes to federal marijuana laws at this time.

Leahy, who chairs the committee, has also invited Deputy Attorney General James Cole to testify at the hearing, which is scheduled for Sept. 10.

"It is important, especially at a time of budget constraints, to determine whether it is the best use of federal resources to prosecute the personal or medicinal use of marijuana in states that have made such consumption legal," Leahy said in a statement. "I believe that these state laws should be respected. At a minimum, there should be guidance about enforcement from the federal government."

A Justice Department spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Update: Holder originally said the federal response to the legalization of medical marijuana was coming "relatively soon" back in December.

Osama Bin Laden Photos Case Could Be Headed To Supreme Court

Ryan J. Reilly   |   August 20, 2013    5:26 PM ET

A conservative group suing the government to obtain photos taken of Osama bin Laden's dead body is taking its case to the Supreme Court.

An appeals court ruled back in May that releasing the images "could reasonably be expected to trigger violence and attacks" against the United States. Judicial Watch had argued that releasing photos of bin Laden's body being buried at sea wouldn't compromise national security.

In a petition filed to the Supreme Court this week, Judicial Watch wrote that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit erred by trusting the government's claim that releasing photos of bin Laden's body being buried at sea would spark riots. Allowing the government to make such a claim would weaken the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Judicial Watch argued.

"By providing almost blind deference to the Executive Branch, it is foreseeable that the Executive Branch will abuse its seemingly unreviewable authority" to use exemptions to FOIA, Judicial Watch argued.

Washington Preps 'Worst-Case Scenario' Over Marijuana Legalization

Ryan J. Reilly   |   August 19, 2013    4:16 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- Nearly six months after Attorney General Eric Holder said the Justice Department's response to the legalization of marijuana in the states of Washington and Colorado was coming "relatively soon," the top legal official in Washington said his office is prepared should the feds decide to sue over its new law.

"Obviously I want to avoid a lawsuit if at all possible, but we'll just see where this goes," Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson told The Huffington Post. "We have a legal team, and I've asked them to prepare for a worst-case scenario, which would be a lawsuit. Again, we want to avoid that. I communicated that to Eric Holder earlier in the year, but we want to prepare for whatever eventuality may come along."

Ferguson said his state is moving forward to implement the law, which allows for adults over 21 to purchase up to an ounce of marijuana. The Justice Department still has yet to indicate how it will react to the legalization of recreational marijuana in the state, which remains illegal under federal law.

"From our standpoint, as the federal government knows, we're moving forward with the regulatory framework around legalizing marijuana, and we look forward to having that wrapped up by the end of the year," Ferguson said. "We're on schedule to meet our deadline and uphold the will of the voters."

Over the weekend, police in Seattle handed out bags of Doritos to those attending Hempfest that featured do's and don'ts on marijuana under state law (even though at this point there's technically no current legal way to obtain marijuana in the state).

States Still Waiting For Federal Response To New Drug Policy

Ryan J. Reilly   |   August 16, 2013    3:40 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- It's been nearly six months since Attorney General Eric Holder said the federal response to the legalization of recreational marijuana in Washington and Colorado was coming "relatively soon," but officials in those states are still waiting.

"I would say, and I mean this, that you’ll hear soon," Holder said back in February when asked about the federal response to the legalization laws. "We are, I think, in our last stages of that review, and are trying to make a determination as to what the policy ramifications are going to be, what our international obligations are."

"But the people in [Colorado] and Washington deserve that answer and we will have that, as I said, relatively soon," Holder continued.

Officials in both states told HuffPost they haven't heard from federal officials since Holder made his comments.

"We were told it was imminent, and we are still waiting," said Carolyn Tyler, a spokeswoman for Colorado Attorney General John W. Suthers.

"We have not heard any further news on when we might hear, or if we'll hear for that matter," said Janelle Guthrie, a spokeswoman for Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson. "We are moving forward."

The Justice Department has not provided any further guidance on when to expect the federal response.

"The legalization initiatives in Washington and Colorado are under review by the Department," Justice Department spokeswoman Allison Price said Friday in a statement to HuffPost. Price said she did not have any specific timeline for the response.

As HuffPost detailed earlier this year, the federal response to legalization will be tricky, especially given DOJ's stumbles in handling the legalization of medical marijuana in several states:

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.

Holder told a House Appropriations subcommittee back in April that the Justice Department, when evaluating its response to the legalization laws, would have to "take into account how we can best use the resources that we have."

Jesse Jackson Jr. Sentenced

Ryan J. Reilly   |   August 14, 2013   12:55 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- Former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison followed by three years probation by a federal judge in Washington on Wednesday for misusing about $750,000 in campaign funds.

Jackson's wife, Sandra, was also sentenced Wednesday. She will serve one year in prison and was ordered to pay $22,000 in restitution, after pleading guilty to a related charge of filing false tax returns. U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who is not related to the Jacksons, allowed the couple to stagger their sentences so their children would have at least one parent at all times. Jackson Jr. will go to prison first, followed by Sandra.

Jackson Jr. pleaded guilty in February to using campaign funds to purchase an array of personal items, including Bruce Lee memorabilia, a $43,000 Rolex watch and a mink cashmere cape.

Jackson, the son of the civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson, made an emotional plea to the judge Wednesday, wiping his eyes and blowing his nose as he asked the judge for some leniency. He apologized to his constituents and his family.

"If probation is not available to her, give me her time," Jackson said, referring to his wife. He said he needed to be "as far away from everybody for a while that I could be."

Reid Weingarten, Jackson's defense attorney, asked for an 18-month sentence for his client and argued that there were "not widows and orphans surrounding the courthouse" wanting Jackson's head. Weingarten said that there was a time when members of Congress could treat their campaign funds as retirement accounts. "This is not Madoff, this is not a ponzi scheme," Weingarten said.

But a federal prosecutor handling the case called Jackson's fraud one of the most significant abuses of the campaign system that has ever been documented and prosecuted. The government asked for four years in prison.

U.S. District Judge Jackson said the Jacksons used the campaign as a "personal piggybank," but said she was confident that "there will be another chapter" for Jackson Jr. But the judge said that while Jackson did not pose a threat to society, a significant jail sentence was necessary to serve as a deterrent to other politicians who might consider raiding their campaign coffers for personal gain.

"The ethical standard has got to be simply higher than unindicted," Judge Jackson said. She said she would have trouble explaining a probation sentence to the donors whose campaigns funds the couple misused.

Judge Jackson said that the fact that the couple had two young children did not mean that Sandra Jackson could get off with just probation.

"It is not the court that put your children in this position," Judge Jackson said. "It is not the government that put your children in this position," she added, calling the prison sentence "survivable."

Jackson Jr. will have to forfeit $750,000, but Judge Jackson ruled against a government request that the Chicago Democrat additionally pay $750,000 to the defunct campaign fund. The DOJ's request, Judge Jackson said, made no sense and served no purpose, calling the plan "impractical and unworkable" to create a "new campaign from scratch" without any clear goal.

“Jesse Jackson Jr.’s journey from the halls of Congress to federal prison is a tragedy of his own making,” U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Ronald Machen said in a statement. “Jackson’s political potential was unlimited, but he instead chose to treat his campaign account as a personal slush fund, stealing from the people who believed in him so he could live extravagantly. He squandered his great capacity for public service through outright theft. The prison sentence imposed today should serve as a wake-up call to other public officials who believe there are no consequences for betraying the public trust.”

Jackson Jr. made brief comments to reporters and cameras waiting outside the federal courthouse.

"I still believe in the power of forgiveness. I believe in the power of redemption. Today I manned up and tried to accept responsibility for the error of my ways, and I still believe in the resurrection," Jackson Jr. said before boarding an awaiting SUV.

This story has been updated following the Jacksons' sentencing.