DOJ official: California should strengthen medical marijuana oversight

Marijuana plants grow on a residential property in a vegetable garden in Lake County on Aug. 7, in Clear Lake, Calif.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

California should strengthen its regulation of the medical marijuana industry if the state wants to avoid federal intervention, Deputy Atty. Gen. James M. Cole said Thursday in an interview with The Times.

Cole, who announced Thursday that he is leaving the No. 2 job at the Justice Department, said he was proud of his efforts to take a softer approach to enforcement of federal marijuana laws. Cole sent a memo to all U.S. attorneys a year ago, including several in California who had aggressively targeted medical marijuana facilities, telling them to ease up on prosecutions of marijuana in states where it was legal.

But in the interview, Cole said states should still have a strong regulatory system in place for the use and sale of marijuana, something he said California lacks.


“If you don’t want us prosecuting [marijuana users] in your state, then get your regulatory act together,” he said. Cole added that California must do a better job of stopping marijuana growth on federal lands.

Unlike most other states that have legalized marijuana in some form, California has no statewide regulatory regimen, leaving it to counties and cities to create a hodgepodge of rules and protections.

Attempts to get marijuana regulation through the state Legislature have failed, but activists are hoping to get an initiative on the 2016 ballot.

The impending departure of Cole, who for four years has been the day-to-day boss of the department, adds to a growing leadership vacuum at the federal government’s top law enforcement agency.

Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. announced last month that he would leave as soon as a successor is confirmed, though the Obama administration has so far not announced a replacement.

At least half a dozen other top positions at the Justice Department, including the associate attorney general, the No. 3 job, are currently filled with acting appointees.


Cole said he was also proud of his initiation of a project to encourage nonviolent prisoners serving long drug sentences to apply for a presidential commutation, and prosecution of Credit Suisse Bank and individual Swiss bankers for helping U.S. citizens evade taxes.

He has also been closely involved in Holder’s “smart on crime” initiative to reduce the prison population and the large proportion of African-Americans in federal prisons.

Cole said he expected to leave in early January, after someone has been chosen to take his place, on a permanent or acting basis.

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