SEATTLE — When the Justice Department announced Thursday that it would not interfere with the enforcement of voter-approved laws that allow recreational pot use in Washington state and Colorado, leaders on both sides of the issue had the same thought: The policy will probably encourage other states to consider similar laws.
For supporters of the state laws, the policy marked a milestone that they believe will boost their efforts to legalize marijuana in other states, including Oregon, Nevada, Massachusetts and Alaska. But for those who have been fighting the legalization of marijuana, the announcement increased their concern.
“The green rush is upon us. The federal government is saying, ‘We’re just going to back off,’” said a disappointed Derek Franklin, president of the Washington Assn. of Substance Abuse and Violence Prevention, which had campaigned against the state law.
On the other side Alex Cooley, co-founder of Solstice, said to be the first legal cannabis-growing facility in Washington state, called the action a “very large step forward,” but that he expected the controversy to continue. “It is not the end of the war on the prohibition of cannabis.”
But conflict between the Colorado and Washington state laws and federal law — which still considers marijuana a Schedule I drug, along with cocaine and heroin — had been a source of tension and confusion.
Many marijuana advocates said the discord prompted some municipalities to take a wait-and-see approach to enacting zoning and other regulations to permit pot sales, not knowing what the federal ramifications would be.
“I do think it will bring some level of relief or comfort,” said Rachel Gillette, the Colorado executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “You can operate without fear the [Drug Enforcement Administration] is going to come seize your property and send you to prison.”
But the policy also represents something larger. “It’s a loud statement from the Obama administration that their intent is to let the experiment happen,” said John Davis, executive director of the Washington state-based Coalition for Cannabis Standards and Ethics.
“It’s huge,” he said. “The fact it mentions adult recreational use is historic.”
Franklin, whose organization opposes the Washington state law, said Thursday’s announcement “really opens the door for other states even wider.” He said not enough has been done to regulate the risk of marijuana abuse. He cautioned against empowering the marijuana industry, which he compared to the tobacco and alcohol industries.
But Gillette said this could represent a shift from handling marijuana in punitive ways toward education and rehabilitation.
“We’re finally reaching a point where we can look at alternatives to prohibition,” she said. “It’s become very, very clear that the war on drugs has failed and we need to look at alternative ways to deal with illicit drugs. I’m hoping this will inspire the federal government to treat drug abuse as a health issue, rather than throw [abusers] in jail and leave them there.”