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DOJ Won't Sue To Overturn Recreational Pot Laws


The Justice Department issued a new policy today for enforcing marijuana laws. Last November, two states, Colorado and Washington, legalized marijuana for recreational use. Well, today, the Obama administration said it would not sue to overturn those laws and it laid out new priorities for prosecutors.

NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is here to explain. And, Carrie, let's start with the new priorities for prosecutors. Marijuana is still illegal under federal law but the government is now suggesting that arresting people for possession of small amounts is not a priority. Is that right?

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: That's right. The attorney general has issued eight new top priorities for federal law enforcement when it comes to marijuana. Right up near the top of that list, Melissa, are making sure that money, revenues, profits from these operations do not go to cartels and drugs gangs. Another one is preventing children from getting their hands on marijuana. And also making sure that the drug doesn't spread from states where it's now legal to states where it's not legal.

A few of the other things on that list of eight priorities include: impaired driving, making sure that public health is considered; also the use of the drug in how it may or may not contribute to violence and the use of firearms in crimes; and finally, the use of marijuana in federal sites like parks and other federal land.

This is a national policy. It applies to all 50 states, not just ones that have legalized the drug for medical use or for recreational use.

BLOCK: Well, what does this all mean for Colorado and Washington State?

JOHNSON: When, the Attorney General Eric Holder called governors from those states today, he said one thing more or less: Trust but verify. The attorney general said there is not going to be blanket immunity for anyone under this new policy. But the Justice Department guidance says if states have regulatory systems that seem to be working well and they don't get in the way of these federal enforcement priorities, the Justice Department is not going to sue those states or go after small scale users, producers or sellers there.

Here's what Washington's Governor, Jay Inslee, had to say.

GOVERNOR JAY INSLEE: I think that what we've seen is a validation of a reason to believe that we are on the right track of being responsible, being disciplined, being real in figuring out a way to follow the voters' intent in this regard.

BLOCK: OK, so the governor of Washington thinks they're on the right track. But what about for drug enforcement agents and the DEA, what are their concerns here?

JOHNSON: So, the DEA has not issued anything public yet. But it's important to note, Melissa, that several former DEA administrators have taken a really hard line on efforts to reduce federal enforcement of marijuana law and to open up any loopholes or what they would perceive as blind spots in enforcement against this drug. So have some former officials in U.S. drug czar's office. I think we can expect a lot more of that criticism to filter out in the coming days, as people wrap their hands around what this new policy may mean in practice.

BLOCK: And for businesses, people who grow marijuana or the distribution centers that distribute it, what about them?

JOHNSON: This is a really important point for marijuana advocates, of which there are now many organizations out there. Under the new DOJ guidance, the size and the commercial nature are not the only factors that prosecutors are supposed to use, in terms of going after a business. So just because it's big - as some in California are, for instance - doesn't mean the feds are going to carry out a raid on those operations. Under the new guidance issued today, one of those eight federal priorities has to guide who becomes a law enforcement target.

It's also important to note, Melissa, that among marijuana advocates today the reaction has been that this is a big step. But they want to take a more or less wait-and-see approach to see how it's been enforced, or being enforced in the ground in the states.

BLOCK: OK, NPR's Carrie Johnson talking about a new policy from the Justice Department on enforcing marijuana laws. Carrie, thanks so much.

JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.