Licensed, taxed marijuana sales in the two states are due to start next year, and officials have estimated they could raise tens or hundreds of millions of dollars for state coffers.
The administration's guidance laid out eight federal law enforcement priorities that states need to protect if they want to authorize "marijuana-related conduct." They include keeping marijuana in-state, off the black market, and away from children; preventing violence and gun crimes related to marijuana distribution; and preventing drugged driving.
The DOJ noted that it simply doesn't have the resources to police all violations of federal marijuana law, and so it would focus on entities that threaten those priorities. If a state's enforcement efforts don't work, the feds could sue to block the state's entire pot-regulating scheme, Deputy Attorney General James Cole wrote in a memo to all 94 U.S. attorneys around the country.
The priorities are similar to the factors the Justice Department has previously considered in determining whether to shut down medical marijuana dispensaries. But the memo also clarifies that just because a regulated marijuana operation is big and profitable isn't reason enough to raid it.
Peter Bensinger, a former head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, criticized the announcement, saying the conflict between federal and state law can't be reconciled. Federal law is paramount, and Attorney General Eric Holder is "not only abandoning the law, he's breaking the law," Bensinger said.
Some in the marijuana-reform community also criticized the memo, noting it did not represent a fundamental change in the law, which would require the approval of Congress.
"It's like, 'We're going to be tolerant of this as long as we feel like it,'" argued Seattle marijuana defense attorney Douglas Hiatt. "Is a new administration just going to come in and shut it down?"