The Obama administration cleared the way Thursday for states to carry out their own marijuana laws, including allowing use for medical reasons in 20 states and for recreational use in Colorado and Washington — as long as they take steps to keep the drug away from children and criminal gangs.
Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, but Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. told the governors of Washington and Colorado that he won’t sue to block their laws, though he will monitor them to make sure they impose stiff regulations on the burgeoning industry.
The Justice Department also issued new guidance to its prosecutors nationwide telling them to put average users at the low end of their priorities.
The moves create a patchwork of enforcement, but the states said it also marks a victory for federalism by giving each of them a chance to experiment and find policies that work.
“We want to show how it’s done, and done right,” said Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who said the final agreement represents a balance that protects individual users but still targets serious drug gangs.
But opponents said the administration was surrendering on a key part of federal law.
“This sends the wrong message to both law enforcement and violators of federal law,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Apprehending and prosecuting illegal drug traffickers should always be a priority for the Department of Justice.”
The marijuana decision was one of a series of momentous policies the Obama administration announced Thursday.
The Treasury Department said legally married gay couples now will file their taxes the same way other married couples do — complete with all the tax benefits and problems that stem from marriage.
At the White House, President Obama issued gun controls that would expand background checks to include guns registered to partnerships, and would ban private entities from reimporting surplus U.S. weapons sold or granted to foreign governments.
The marijuana policy has been in the works for nearly a year, after voters in Washington and Colorado passed referendums in November.
Mr. Holder promised to have a decision months ago, and the delay irked officials in both states.
“I remain mystified as to why it took so long,” said Colorado Attorney General John W. Suthers, who said the overdue policy was “nevertheless welcome.”
State officials said there are still questions to be worked out.
Marijuana advocates were wary of the latest federal guidance, saying it still leaves the government a lot of latitude to intervene.
“The real question is whether the president will call off his federal agencies that have been on the attack and finally let legal marijuana businesses operate without harassment,” said Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority, “or if he wants the DEA and prosecutors to keep intervening as they have throughout his presidency and thus continue forcing users to buy marijuana on the illegal market where much of the profits go to violent drug cartels and gangs.”
Some in law enforcement, though, said Mr. Holder could be violating the law by refusing to enforce parts of it.
“He’s not only shirking his duty, he’s not living up to his oath of office,” said Peter Bensinger, a former head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, according to The Associated Press.
The Justice Department listed eight areas where it will still be aggressive in targeting marijuana, including preventing distribution to minors, stopping marijuana from being used as a cover for trafficking other drugs, and enforcing laws against driving under the influence of drugs.
Washington and Colorado officials said they have taken steps to make sure their marijuana markets are heavily regulated and that they share the Obama administration’s enforcement priorities.
“We drafted the most robust marijuana regulations in the country because public safety is our top priority,” said Colorado state Rep. Dan Pabon, a Democrat who was chairman of the legislative select committee that drafted the regulations.
States have been pushing the edge on this issue for years, including legalizing marijuana for those who obtain a doctor’s prescription.
But voters in Colorado and Washington went further last year when they approved referendums calling for a broad legalization for recreational use. The moves presented a challenge for federalism — the division of roles between federal and state governments.
Thursday’s policy change opens the door for limited experimentation, though with a watchful national government keeping tabs.
When he campaigned in 2008, Mr. Obama said he didn’t think it was a good use of federal manpower to go after pot use in states where it had been legalized. But less than a month after he took office, the Drug Enforcement Administration raided medical marijuana shops in California.
At the time, the White House said it expected those raids to stop once Mr. Obama nominated his own people to the DEA. But advocates said things improved only slightly and questionable raids still took place.