WASHINGTON — For generations, pot crusaders have called for an end to the nation's prohibition of marijuana, citing everything from what they say are the government's exaggerated claims about its dangers to the racial disparities in who gets busted for drug possession.
Now, they will get their chance in Colorado and Washington state to show that legalizing pot is better, less costly and more humane than the last 75 years of prohibition — all with the federal government's blessing.
In a sweeping new policy statement, the Justice Department said Thursday it will not stand in the way of states that want to legalize, tax and regulate marijuana as voters in Washington and Colorado did last fall, as long as there are effective controls to keep marijuana away from kids, the black market and federal property.
"It's nothing short of historic," said Dan Riffle of the Marijuana Policy Project, which backed Colorado's new law. "It's a very big deal for the DOJ to say that if the states want to legalize marijuana, that's fine. Everybody in this movement should be thrilled."
It won't just be the White House watching to make sure Washington and Colorado get it right. Voters in Oregon and Alaska could weigh marijuana legalization measures next year, and several states could face ballot questions in 2016, activists say.
Meanwhile, Latin and South American countries are also considering pot reform, and the Obama administration's stance on Washington's and Colorado's laws could embolden them, said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance, which supported Washington's law. Uruguay has already approved plans to license marijuana growers and shops.
The DOJ's decision came nearly 10 months after the votes in Washington and Colorado, and officials in those states had been forging ahead to make rules for their new industries without knowing whether the federal government would sue to block sales from ever taking place on the grounds that they conflict with federal law.