Despite 75 years of federal marijuana prohibition, the Justice Department said today that states can let people use the drug, license people to grow it, and even allow adults to stroll into stores and buy it. The only thing they must do is keep it away from kids, the black market, and federal property. In a sweeping new policy statement prompted by pot legalization votes in Washington and Colorado last fall, the department gave the green light to states to adopt tight regulatory schemes to oversee the medical and recreational marijuana industries burgeoning across the country.
The action, welcomed by supporters of legalization, could set the stage for more states to legalize marijuana. Alaska could vote on the question next year, and a few other states plan similar votes in 2016. The policy change embraces what Justice Department officials called a "trust but verify" approach between the federal government and states that enact recreational drug use. In a memo to all 94 US attorneys' offices around the country, Deputy Attorney General James Cole said the federal government expects that states and local governments authorizing "marijuana-related conduct" will implement strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems that address the threat those state laws could pose to public health and safety. (A new survey finds that pot is the most popular illegal drug of all.)