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Feds say no to busting pot users in green states as Alaska's decision nears

Alaska Dispatch
Decades of marijuana propaganda sparked by the Reefer Madness cinema campaign and farming interests were critical to the War on Drugs and a prison industry addicted to narcotics sentencing. On Thursday, government shifted its stance on marijuana prohibition. flickr / Bob Doran

The government agents and attorneys who enforce federal law won't be deployed to disrupt cannabis farmers or recreational tokers in Colorado or Washington state, a drastic shift in federal drug policy that could influence Alaska's organized effort to legalize marijuana via citizens initiative on the August 2014 primary election ballot.

In a memo to U.S. attorneys in the 50 states, Deputy Attorney General James Cole in effect says Washington will leave it to states to regulate individual marijuana use, recreationally or for medicinal purposes. As long as states "implement strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems," the federal government will not go after pot use deemed legal under state law, the memo declares.

So far, 18 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana. In last year’s elections, voters in Colorado and Washington State approved recreational pot use, and Thursday's announcement could set the stage for more states to legalize marijuana. Alaska is scheduled to vote on the question next year, and a few other states plan similar votes in 2016.

That seems to be a logical trend given the movement in public opinion.

In April, the Pew Research Center for the first time found majority support (52-45 percent) for legalizing marijuana – a noticeable 11 percent increase in support just since 2010, and a whopping rise since 1969 when Gallup found that 84 percent of those surveyed opposed legalization. Some 48 percent of Americans say they have tried marijuana, up from 38 percent a decade ago.

The recent Pew poll also found that a larger number of Americans – 60 percent – agree that “the federal government should not enforce federal laws prohibiting the use of marijuana in states where it is legal.”

The Controlled Substance Act schedules marijuana as a narcotic on par with chemicals like crack cocaine or prescription painkillers. A movement has quietly legalized pot for medicinal purposes in several states, including Alaska. Groups like the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project and the National Organization for Reforming Marijuana Laws helped organize and inform locals across the Northwest and Colorado Rockies in the run-up to last November's election.

President Obama's announcement Thursday eased fears of armed DEA raids or other enforcement measures on the coalition of environmentalists and libertarians, allied with stoners and prison reform activists, who coalesced behind the surge for pot in Colorado, Washington and Oregon, though Oregon narrowly rejected legalization.

Both green states quickly moved to study ways that marijuana could be produced commercially and regulated for sale and consumption, with laws aimed at deterring abuse, segmenting public tokers away from nonsmokers and punishing those who got too high to drive. DOJ's policy will be to leave both states be, provided that additional policies are enacted to ensure that pot sales come off the streets and into permitted business; that taxes are levied to fund public health campaigns that inform of pot's side effects on health (though few compared to alcohol and nicotine), and that farmers in Colorado and Washington don't sell bud across state lines.

Here’s the breakdown from pot activists at Cannabis Consultants:

The memo directs federal prosecutors to focus their resources on eight specific areas of enforcement, rather than targeting individual marijuana users, which even President Obama has acknowledged is not the best use of federal manpower. Those areas include preventing distribution of marijuana to minors, preventing the sale of pot to cartels and gangs, preventing sales to other states where the drug remains illegal under state law, and stopping the growing of marijuana on public lands.

Obama's decision will likely keep marijuana decriminalization away from the Supreme Court, for now, unless Congress sues the president over failing to enforce federal laws.

The Justice Department position is unlikely to affect federal drug enforcement in California, Texas or other states sharing a porous border with Mexico, where drug wars have raged for years.

But it may ease concerns for Alaskans who haven't yet latched onto the quiet effort afoot to legalize marijuana, once and for all, in the 49th state. The Marijuana Policy Project, instrumental in the Colorado citizens initiative victory, is involved in local efforts. The initiative to legalize pot in Alaska has been certified by the lieutenant governor's office and will get a vote a year from now in the 2014 party primary election scheduled for next August.

The Christian Science Monitor contributed to this report.