The Obama administration says it will not challenge two new state laws legalizing the recreational and medical use of marijuana, as long as they do not interfere with new federal enforcement priorities.
In a broad-ranging policy statement, the U.S. Justice Department said it expects Colorado and Washington to adopt "strict regulatory schemes" aimed at blocking minors from marijuana access and criminal gangs from trafficking profits. Officials say the new guidelines will apply to all states that legalize marijuana use.
Colorado and Washington began allowing small amounts of marijuana for recreational use, following voter approvals in 2012 elections. Eighteen other states and the District of Columbia permit the use of the drug for medical purposes.
The announcement eases 75 years of blanket federal criminal penalties for the use and distribution of marijuana. The move follows a protracted push by marijuana proponents, including U.S. congressional advocates, to end criminal prosecutions for marijuana use by adults.
The Justice Department said Attorney General Eric Holder explained the government's new approach to the governors of Colorado and Washington on Thursday. Holder also told federal prosecutors the remaining priority enforcement areas will focus on illegal cartel activity, interstate trafficking and violence, or accidents involving the drug, as well as juvenile protections.
Analysts say the new guidelines do not alter marijuana's classification as an illegal drug. But they effectively discourage the prosecution of marijuana users who have no links to criminal gangs or cartels.
In 2011, congressional legislation legalizing recreational use of the drug failed to gain sufficient support for a vote in the House of Representatives. The legislation was backed by a bipartisan group of 20 lawmakers.
A spokesman for the advocacy group "Marijuana Policy Project" called Thursday's announcement a "major and historic step toward ending marijuana prohibition."
But opponents were quick to criticize the move.
Peter Bensinger, a former head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, said the U.S. Attorney's action violates existing law and puts the citizens of Washington and Colorado at risk. A spokeswoman for the "Drug Free America Foundation," Calvina Fay, is quoted as voicing disappointment "that Eric Holder's not doing his job."