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Despite permissive new laws, marijuana still illegal at federal level

Late last month, the U.S. Department of Justice announced a new policy under which it would not be taking any action to block the implementation of new laws legalizing marijuana in Colorado and Washington. Prior to the announcement, of course, there had been some ambivalence about how the federal government would respond to the new laws, since the drug will continue to remain illegal under federal law.

The announcement was a big deal, because it could encourage other states to take up the legalization of marijuana as well. Next year, Oregon and Alaska may be voting on their own legalization measures, and more states could follow their lead in 2016. It was a bit of relief for officials in Washington and Colorado, who had been taking steps to prepare for implementation of the new laws without being certain about the federal government’s backing.

A big concern for the Justice Department, of course, is keeping marijuana off the black market in those states. Also of concern are gun crimes and impaired driving stemming from marijuana legalization. Simply put, the Justice Department just doesn’t have the resources to handle all of these concerns.

While the announcement was positive, it has also been pointed out that it should not be viewed as a long-term victory for marijuana advocates, since the Justice Department—without going through Congress—can change its policy at any time. A more fundamental change would require getting Congress on board.

Illinois, of course, is currently in the process of implementing its new medical marijuana program. Those involved in that program have some of the same concerns as marijuana proponents in Washington and Colorado: although marijuana is legal for medical purposes in Illinois, it is still illegal under federal law, and the Justice Department could change its policy at any time.

Those who have concerns about the legal use of marijuana in Illinois do well to speak with an experienced attorney about how to remain within the bounds of the law.

Source: ABC Local, “Colorado marijuana, Washington pot OK’d by Justice Department,” August 30, 2013. 

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