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DOJ Won't Challenge State Pot Laws, But Controlled Status of Marijuana Not Changing

"This is a historic step forward," said Erik Altieri, communications director for NORML, an organization that supports legalization efforts. "Assuming the Department of Justice stays true to their word, these states and others will no doubt move forward with the state-licensed regulation of cannabis for adults. The public has evolved beyond the simplistic, failed policies of cannabis prohibition and are seeking pragmatic, regulatory alternatives. It is encouraging to see that the federal government no longer intends to stand in their way."

Twenty states and the District of Columbia thus far have adopted laws that permit consumption of cannabis authorized by a doctor’s prescription. Seven of those states, along with the district, also allow the state-licensed cultivation and sale of marijuana to qualified patients. Two states -- Colorado and Washington -- voted about 10 months ago to permit the licensed commercial production and retail sale of cannabis for non-medical purposes. Both states are expected to begin production and sales early next year.

The Justice Department decision appears to line up with public opinion. A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press last April found that a majority of Americans, 52 percent, favor legalizing the use of marijuana while 45 percent say it should not be legalized.

Support for legalizing marijuana has risen 11 points since 2010, according to Pew. The change is even more dramatic since 1969, when a Gallup survey found that just 12 percent favored legalizing marijuana while 84 percent opposed legalization.

The administration’s decision was not universally embraced. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said President Obama and the Justice Department are taking drug enforcement in the wrong direction.

“Time and again we have seen the Obama administration decline to enforce laws that it finds inconvenient or that it simply doesn’t like,” Grassley said. “Today’s announcement is the latest example. The administration is now effectively instructing law enforcement not to prioritize the prosecution of the large-scale distribution and sale of marijuana in certain states. This sends the wrong message to both law enforcement and violators of federal law. Apprehending and prosecuting illegal drug traffickers should always be a priority for the Department of Justice.”

Grassley won’t have to wait long to voice his complaints. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has scheduled a hearing for Sept. 10 to discuss the conflicts between federal and state authorities over marijuana laws. Cole is expected to be among those called to testify.