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Legal marijuana: US defends decision not to challenge two states' laws

The Obama administration's stance on Colorado and Washington's marijuana laws is not an abdication of responsibility to uphold federal narcotics laws, a Justice official told senators.

By Staff writer / September 10, 2013

Deputy Attorney General James Cole testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday. The Justice Department announced Aug. 29 that it won't try to stop Colorado and Washington state from legalizing recreational marijuana use as long as they implement strong enforcement systems.

Susan Walsh/AP

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The Obama administration’s decision not to challenge the legalization of recreational marijuana use in two states is not an abdication of its responsibility to uphold federal narcotics laws, a senior Justice Department official told a US Senate subcommittee Tuesday.

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Deputy Attorney General James Cole told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that federal prosecutors and agents are prepared to focus aggressive efforts on interstate and national enforcement of marijuana trafficking laws.

“We are not giving immunity. We are not giving a free pass. We are not abdicating our responsibility,” Mr. Cole testified.

He spoke two weeks after the administration announced that it would not seek to challenge or otherwise undercut voter initiatives passed in Washington State and Colorado last November that legalized the possession and use of personal amounts of marijuana.

Currently, 21 states and the District of Columbia have laws permitting the use of marijuana for medical purposes. Six of those laws were enacted this year.

Only Colorado and Washington have gone the extra step to decriminalize recreational use of personal amounts of marijuana.

Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa objected to the Justice Department’s posture. “These laws flatly contradict federal law,” he said. “Some experts fear they will create a Big Marijuana industry, including a ‘Starbucks of Marijuana,’ that will damage public health.”

“These policies do not seem compatible with the responsibility Justice Department officials have to faithfully discharge their duties,” he said. “Prosecutorial discretion is one thing. But giving the green light to an entire industry predicated on breaking federal law is another.”

Cole said federal officials would aggressively enforce federal drug laws when the illicit conduct implicated one of eight enforcement priorities embraced by the Obama administration.

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