U.S. Dept. of Justice plan to let the states control legalized marijuana

Marijuana fans cheer U.S. Dept. of Justice plan to let the states
control legalized marijuana

By Bill Laitner Detroit Free Press Aug. 29

Marijuana fans cheer U.S. Dept. of Justice plan to let the states control legalized marijuana

The nation’s top law enforcers had fans of legal marijuana cheering in Michigan and elsewhere Thursday with news that the Obama administration won’t challenge state efforts to legalize the drug.

In a memo to its network of U.S. Attorneys nationwide, the Justice Department said it would not block states from easing laws on marijuana for recreational and medical use, so long as the marijuana activity does not involve eight federal “enforcement priorities.”

There are two bills pending in Lansing, one that addresses the distribution of marijuana and another that would decriminalize its use.
“It’s another step in the right direction,” said Matt Abel, executive director of Michigan NORML, the state chapter of a national group that has spent decades pushing for legalization. Abel is senior partner of a Detroit law firm called Cannabis Counsel, which specializes in defending people charged with marijuana offenses.

“I would hope that Michigan now would start to consider full legalization so that law enforcement can focus on more serious crimes like rape, robbery and murder, instead of chasing after people for using a substance that’s safer than alcohol,” said Abel, 55, of Detroit.
The memo from the Justice Department said those eight “enforcement priorities” consist of any marijuana activity involving the following: minors, organized crime, violence or firearms, “cover or pretext” for other crimes, diversion of the drug to states where it’s illegal, increased risks to public health such as with drugged driving, cultivation of the drug on public land, and its use on federal property.

To explain the policy, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder telephoned specifically the governors of Colorado and Washington, according to a Justice Department official who was not authorized to comment publicly. Those two states have legalized marijuana for all uses, not just for medicinal use, as in Michigan. Lawmakers in Colorado and Washington have been debating whether their efforts to regulate and tax marijuana production and distribution would ultimately run afoul of federal law.

The Justice Department official emphasized that marijuana remains under federal law a Schedule 1 narcotic, regulated by the same drug laws that control heroin, cocaine and other potent street drugs.

“What an exciting day for our issue,” said Karen O’Keefe, a Grosse Pointe Farms native and director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, a nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C. “This means the laws in Colorado and Washington can go into effect and take the distribution of marijuana out of the hands of criminals and gangs. But it will give a lot of assurance to other states, like Michigan, that they can actively advance the policy goals that a majority of Americans support,” said O’Keefe.

A March poll by the Pew Research Center found that 52% of Americans support making marijuana legal.
Thursday’s memo is a sharp contrast to a Justice Department memo in 2011, which warned states that their medical marijuana laws would not protect commercial marijuana operations from raids by federal authorities.

But law-enforcement officials in Michigan said the announcement Thursday wouldn’t deter their officers and deputies from using state laws to make marijuana arrests. “At the county level, our guys will continue to enforce the state law,” Macomb County Sheriff Anthony Wickersham said. “We really haven’t changed our approach much since Michigan passed the medical marijuana act. We go after the serious violators.”

Ferndale Police Chief Tim Collins predicted the announcement would have little impact. “If we’re in a residence for any other reason, like a domestic violence call, we’re still going to arrest people if there’s marijuana on the premises,” Collins said. He said he approved of a pledge by Justice Department officials “to step in if there’s a large-scale marijuana activity” because “otherwise, Colorado is going to become the marijuana crime center of the country.”

A key part of Thursday’s development is the statement by the Justice Department that it will be more likely to enforce federal marijuana laws in states that fail to control the proliferation of marijuana activities by passing their own regulations.

That’s essential news to the tens of thousands of Michiganders who are approved by Lansing to use medical marijuana, said Robin Schneider, legislative chairwoman of the Detroit-based National Patients Rights Association. The federal announcement comes at a time when medical marijuana is allowed in 20 states, including Michigan, as well as in the District of Columbia. In Michigan, “if we properly regulate and allow the distribution of medical marijuana at the state level, the federal government is saying we’re entitled to do so,” Schneider said. Countless medical marijuana users in Michigan found that reliable supplies of the drug dried up after a court ruling that resulted in closings of distribution centers, called dispensaries, she said. “We hope this announcement empowers our legislators in Michigan to regulate medical marijuana and create safe places for patients to obtain their medicine,” Schneider said.

A bill in Lansing proposed by state Rep. Mike Callton, R-Nashville, would let cities and townships in Michigan decide for themselves whether to allow marijuana distribution centers. Another bill, sponsored by state Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, would serve to decriminalize marijuana throughout the state, making possession of a small amount of the drug tantamount to a traffic violation.

For Joe White, a retired Detroit Public Schools physical education teacher, Holder’s announcement was welcome news. White’s wife, Brenda White, 50, has had multiple sclerosis for 26 years and uses medical marijuana instead of the prescription drugs that caused “terrible side effects,” he said.
“She’s enjoying life now, even with the MS,” he said.

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