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The federal government has taken a dramatic step that weed advocates say could portend a move toward eventual legalization coast to coast.

In a memo dated Aug. 29, the U.S. Justice Department explained it will not try to stop the 20 states that have legalized pot for medical use – or the two of them, Washington and Colorado, that have legalized it for all uses. In addition, the government will no longer prosecute providers simply because they’re for-profit or large.

The Marijuana Tables Have Turned

smoking_bluntThe memo was sent by Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole to federal prosecutors across the country. It cited “limited prosecutorial resources,” saying it’s economically infeasible for the feds to try to go after weed when the states have legalized it. Cannabis remains illegal under federal law.

Ean Seeb, co-owner of a the Denver Relief pot dispensary in Colorado, told The New York Times the announcement was a watershed.

“This is a historic day,” Seeb said. “This is the beginning of the end of marijuana prohibition.”

The new policy doesn’t prevent police and prosecutors from going after marijuana purveyors, but it sets new guidelines, and an important quid pro quo. In return for getting prosecutors off their backs, the states must set up regulations that successfully prevent sales to minors, cartel and gang activity, interstate trafficking, violence, and accidents.

“A system adequate to that task must not only contain robust controls and procedures on paper; it must also be effective in practice,” Cole wrote in the August memo.

Effect On Certain States

The new approach by the Justice Department applies to all 20 states that have made weed legal to some degree. That includes Colorado and Washington, whose voters have legalized marijuana for medical and recreational purposes. There are 18 other states, plus the District of Columbia, that have approved medical pot. They include Oregon, California, Nevada, Montana, Arizona, New Mexico, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Hawaii, Alaska and Delaware.american_flag_marijuana

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder explained the new “trust but verify” policy to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Colorado Gov. John W. Hickenlooper in a phone call on the day the memo was released, according to the Times.

It remains unclear how this policy might play out in a state like California, where regulations are still chaotic but are tightening in most places. And while the policy is mandatory, it isn’t retroactive, so ongoing prosecutions may proceed.

Positive Outcomes From The New Marijuana Policy

U.S. attorneys also have wide discretion in deciding whether states’ laws create “adverse public health consequences associated with marijuana use.” If a state isn’t doing enough to prevent these problems, “the federal government may seek to challenge the regulatory structure itself in addition to continuing to bring individual enforcement actions, including criminal prosecutions,” Cole wrote.

The change in direction for the feds will not just mean an easier, safer experience for patients, growers and providers. It will mean more jobs, more taxes, fewer non-violent young men (mostly black) sent to jail and tarred with criminal records, and a legal system that isn’t clogged with needless cases.

It may also be the next big step in the direction of a nation with legal marijuana.

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About the Author: Matt Brooks

Matt is a journalist from San Francisco who has specialized in marijuana policy for more than six years.

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