Blog Post

More Green-ish Than I Expected

Ethan Nadelmann
No doubt you heard the news out of Washington, DC, last Thursday regarding the Obama administration’s new approach to the marijuana legalization laws in Washington and Colorado.
I had anticipated more or less of a yellow light, with all sorts of discouraging restrictions, but I must say the light was a lot more green-ish than I expected.  The Justice Department essentially said to authorities in Colorado and Washington: “proceed with caution, but it’s OK to proceed.”  And the eight criteria they set out for evaluating implementation of the new laws were mostly of the sort that we recommended: reducing criminal involvement and violence in the marijuana business and preventing distribution to minors, drugged driving, marijuana production on public lands, and diversion of marijuana to jurisdictions where it is not yet legal. States now have a federally designed roadmap for how to proceed
The implications are enormous. Washington and Colorado can now move forward with implementing the initiatives with significantly less fear of capricious federal action undermining their efforts.  The eighteen other states that have legalized marijuana for medical purposes now have clearer and more expansive guidelines.  The growing number of states where a majority of voters favor legalizing marijuana can now move forward with appropriate legislation and ballot initiatives.  Voters who were undecided or skeptical about legalizing marijuana may now begin to see it as both good and inevitable.  And the absurd federal prohibition on growing hemp (the non-psychoactive version of marijuana) for industrial purposes will likely not survive much longer. 
The new policy also has enormous implications internationally. When the news broke last Thursday I was in Jamaica meeting with senior political and business figures to urge them to move forward on ganja law reform. The first question on everybody’s mind was, “But what’s the U.S. embassy going to do?”  I was able to tell them that it’s a new world, and that U.S. diplomats will be in no position to threaten Jamaica or anybody else now that the Obama administration has provided this guidance for Washington and Colorado – and others -- to follow.   
I don’t want to oversell what happened on Thursday. Federal prosecutors will still be able to diverge from the Justice Department’s guidelines and prosecute some of those operating legally under state law.  The IRS, ATF and other federal agencies still need to change their policies regarding the emerging legal industry. Local prosecutors and police agencies already have protested the new guidelines and will no doubt try to undermine them.  No one knows what a new administration will do in 2017.  And we still need to end marijuana prohibition in forty-eight other states as well as the U.S. Congress.  Marijuana is not, I keep reminding people, going to legalize itself, nor is our opposition going to just fade away. Now is not the time to become over-confident.
There’s no question, however, that we’ve made extraordinary progress over the past few years and have the wind at our sails like never before.  What gives me the greatest satisfaction about all this is that fewer and fewer people are going to be arrested, given criminal records and otherwise harmed by government because of marijuana. We’re making a real difference in the lives of millions of people.
I’m curious to know what you think of all this.
Ethan Nadelmann is the founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.