DOJ Makes Hopefully Historic Change for the Better on Marijuana Enforcement

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Attorney General Eric Holder

It was a hopefully historic (but perhaps we should remain pragmatic) breakthrough/small victory in the struggle to end marijuana prohibition. August 29, 2013, Attorney General Eric Holder informed the governors of Washington and Colorado that the Department of Justice will allow the states to implement their recently passed ballot initiatives, legalizing the production, distribution, and sale of marijuana for adults. Could it be a big hooray?!

Deputy Attorney General James Cole also issued a three-and-a-half-page memo that outlined the priorities for federal prosecutors enforcing marijuana laws. The memo went out to U.S. attorneys across the country. In addition to Washington and Colorado, which have legalized marijuana for personal use, this new directive will also apply to the 20 states that have legalized it for medical purposes.

In the scheme of things, it was just a memo; not a change in the laws. Although maintaining the DOJ’s previous stance regarding marijuana as a dangerous drug, it did lend a glimmer of hope to citizens who have spent decades in the effort to end marijuana prohibition. It also provides hope in states that have changed the laws, only to see the federal raids continue.

The memo today was to update memos that went out in 2009 and 2011. With the announcement, it was also clear that the Department of Justice left the door open to reverse course. However, the recommendation at this point is to leave the regulation of these laws up to the states. According to Deputy Attorney General Cole’s memo, in the past, the DOJ focused its efforts on “certain enforcement priorities that are particularly important to the federal government.” The effort will continue in these priorities:

  • Preventing the distribution of marijuana to minors;
  • Preventing revenue from the sale of marijuana from going to criminal enterprises, gangs and cartels;
  • Preventing the diversion of marijuana from states where it is legal under state law in some form to other states;
  • Preventing state-authorized marijuana activity from being used as a cover or pretext for the trafficking of other illegal drugs or other illegal activity;
  • Preventing violence and the use of firearms in the cultivation and distribution of marijuana;
  • Preventing drugged driving and the exacerbation of other adverse public health consequences associated with marijuana use;
  • Preventing growing of marijuana on public lands and the attendant public safety and environmental dangers posed by marijuana production on public lands; and
  • Preventing marijuana possession or use on federal property. (The 2013 Cole Memo)

Perhaps guarded optimism is the best response, as the memo goes on to say:

As with the Department’s previous statements on this subject, this memorandum is intended solely as a guide to the exercise of investigative and prosecutorial discretion. This memorandum does not alter in any way the Department’s authority to enforce federal law, including federal laws relating to marijuana, regardless of state law. (The 2013 Cole Memo)

Heralded with much fanfare and media coverage for all the years of effort, today would seem at least a small victory. Long-time activists working toward ending marijuana prohibition expressed guarded optimism, and caution.

I checked in with Steve Elliott of Toke Signals TV for his response:

While this potentially represents a huge step forward for repealing marijuana prohibition, we’ve seen federal directives such as these change (witness how the Ogden Memo of 2009 was largely reversed by the Cole Memo of 2011). Actions speak louder than words; if the federal government reverses its policies of denying banking services and tax breaks to state-legal marijuana businesses, we’ll know they are serious. (Elliott, 2013)

Along the same vein, Americans for Safe Access (ASC) also pointed out:

This memo is similar to a memo by Deputy Attorney General Cole published about medical cannabis enforcement in 2009. The fact that the DOJ is suggesting that some activity which is legal under state law may not be an enforcement priority is a big step forward. Of course, we should be cautious. Federal enforcement escalated after Deputy Attorney General Cole published his 2009 memo on medical cannabis. Today’s memo represents a chance to move the issue of medical cannabis forward in Congress right now. (ASA)

Indeed, according to figures maintained by Americans for Safe Access (ASA, What’s the Cost Report), in the last 17 years, the DEA conducted over 528 raids on sick and injured individuals and the organizations dispensing their cannabis medication; 270 of those were during the Obama administration. I was a little curious as to the dates of it all, as Obama took office in January 2009. The 2009 Ogden Memo came out in October of that year, and the 2011 Cole Memo was under his administration as well. This latest memo is to update the other two, as it pertains to changes in state laws.

The War on Drugs has been going on for so long and done so much damage to so many lives. Marijuana prohibition is just one facet. Even as I write, as important as I feel a small victory might be for so many people, it’s only a memo; and there is also other major world news going on today — conflict, lives lost, war is brewing in Syria.

I am also well aware that recent developments emerging alongside the Snowden case left many asking what was really going on with the NSA; how far have they over extended their reach into the lives of ordinary citizens? What are the real implications of those illegal investigations on the citizens of this country? The whole world has looked askance as one after the other, the pieces fall into such a place that no matter how much we wanted to believe it wasn’t so, something is amiss with the doings of the NSA. Now we have the DEA and their “Special Operations Division” hitting closer to home on these prohibition issues. I can’t help wondering whether this announcement today from the DOJ is really a ray of hope, or merely a diversion.


There is no doubt, the times are changing. The conversation is on. And make no mistake, it is getting louder. Dr. Sanjay Gupta (with his “Weed” documentary) brought a whole lot of attention not just to the years of misinformation and deliberate lies, but also to the things that most people don’t know about the serious medical implications of its use. He got people talking and they are still talking.

Also, just the other day, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) announced that the Committee would hold a hearing on September 10 (mark your calendar) on the “Conflicts between State and Federal Marijuana Laws.” Now that is something.

If nothing else, perhaps it is a time to reflect; a moment of hope that perhaps things will get better in this country. Time will tell if this directive is real.

For further reference:

Regina Garson

Raised in the hill country of central Alabama, Regina Garson has degrees in Behavioral Science, Communications, and English. A long time writer, editor and activist, her career has involved both the social and the hard sciences. She has devoted her efforts to a number of causes including the War on Drugs, equality issues: race/diversity/women, labor and workplace issues, NASA, STEM education, and space development. She is founder and publisher of MagicStream.org, which is among the earliest self-help and wellness sites on the Internet. She also publishes a blog, where you can read more of her writing: Regina Garson's Blog. Follow her on Twitter @ReginaGarson, like her on Facebook, and read more of her articles in the archives.
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