News & Politics

Justice Department Says It Will Not Oppose State Marijuana Laws

The announcement is good news for DC residents receiving medical marijuana treatment.

Blue Dream, one of the strains of medical marijuana available at Capital City Care. Photograph courtesy of Capital City Care.

In a move that comes as relieving news to DC’s burgeoning medical marijuana industry, the Obama administration said today that it will not challenge laws in the 22 states and District of Columbia where weed is legalized or approved for medicinal use, provided the stuff is tightly controlled.

In a memorandum sent to all US attorneys, Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole writes that federal prosecutors will still pursue cases against trafficking where marijuana is sold alongside other illegal substances or weapons, and against those who grow or sell pot on public land. The paper does not change marijuana’s classification as a “dangerous drug” in the eyes of the federal government, but it does offer some official leeway in the places that have relaxed local laws concerning the plant.

“In jurisdictions that have enacted laws legalizing marijuana in some form an that have also implemented strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems to control the cultivation, distribution, sale, and possession of marijuana, conduct in compliance with those laws is less likely to threaten the federal priorities set above,” Cole writes.

The announcement comes at the behest of Colorado and Washington state, where voters last year approved ballot measures legalizing recreational marijuana use. But it applies all the same to DC and the 20 states that have approved weed for limited uses.

For DC, where marijuana as treatment recently became available for patients who suffer from a very limited menu of illnesses, that should not be a problem. The city’s first three dispensaries finally opened earlier this summer, nearly 15 years after voters approved a 1998 referendum authorizing medical marijuana.It took another decade-and-a-half of congressional meddling and regulatory setbacks for that measure to finally become a reality, though.

The Obama administration’s first few years in office were marked by a more uneven approach toward legalized forms of marijuana. Although President Obama entered office saying his people would lay off medical use, the Drug Enforcement Administration continued to enforce federal drug laws against medical pot facilities throughout the nation.

But Scott Morgan, the owner of Capital City Care on North Capitol St., is pleased to hear of the Justice Department’s turn today. “The memo indicates that well-run programs will be respected and that’s exactly what we have here in the District,” he tells Washingtonian. “It’s exciting news because it means we can keep moving forward and working together to make medical marijuana a success in the nation’s capital.”

DC’s medical marijuana regime is tightly controlled. Only patients who suffer from HIV or AIDS, cancer, glaucoma, or severe muscle spasms are eligible, and then only after showing a Department of Health form filled out by their physician, who must be licensed to practice in the District. As of July, only 110 of the city’s roughly 9,500 doctors had shown interest in prescribing weed for their chronically ill patients.

And despite Capital City Care’s soothing décor, it also has a heavy security system, including biometric locks, motion detectors, and alarms, all of which are hard-wired to the Metropolitan Police Department.

That sounds tough enough to satisfy the Justice Department’s new tune.

Guidance Regarding Marijuana Enforcement

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.