In light of White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s recent comments that the Department of Justice may seek “greater enforcement” of the federal laws prohibiting the recreational use of marijuana, eleven U.S. Senators sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions seeking clarification of the DOJ’s position. In a letter dated March 2, 2017, Senators Elizabeth Warren (D.-MA.), Lisa Murkowski (R.-AK.), Patty Murray (D.-WA.), Ron Wyden (D-OR.), Jeffrey Merkley (D.-OR.), Maria Cantwell (D-WA.), Edward Markey (D-MA.), Brian Schatz (D.-HI.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D.-NV.), Cory A. Booker (D.-N.J.), and Michael Bennet (D.-CO.) stated that:

“It is essential that states that have implemented any type of practical, effective marijuana policy receive immediate assurance from the DOJ that it will respect the ability of states to enforce thoughtful, sensible drug policies in ways that do not threaten the public’s health and safety. This ensures that state infrastructure, including tax revenue, small businesses, and jobs, can be protected; DOJ resources can be used most effectively; and most importantly, that marijuana can be properly regulated to improve public health and safety.”

More specifically, the U.S. Senators asked the Attorney General to continue to follow the policy set forth in the “Cole Memorandum.” The Cole Memorandum, issued by DOJ in 2013, articulated the federal government’s enforcement priorities with respect to marijuana, noting that while DOJ is committed to the enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act (which makes marijuana illegal), it also is committed to using its limited investigative and prosecutorial resources to address the most significant threats.  DOJ’s enforcement priorities include:  preventing the distribution of marijuana to minors; preventing revenue from the sale of marijuana from going to criminal enterprises, gangs and cartels; preventing state-authorized marijuana activity from being used as a cover or pretext for the trafficking of other illegal drugs or other illegal activity; and, preventing violence and the use of firearms in the cultivation and distribution of marijuana; among other things.  Outside of those enforcement priorities, DOJ expressed its willingness to rely on state and local governments who have enacted marijuana laws to implement “strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems that will address the threat that those state laws could pose to public safety, public health, and other law enforcement interests.”

The Senators requested an opportunity to comment on any shift in policy from that expressed in the Cole Memorandum, to avoid disruption of existing regulation and enforcement efforts.

Currently, eight states (Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington) and the District of Columbia have recreational marijuana laws, while twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia have medical marijuana laws.