Last week, the Justice Department sent a memo to federal prosecutors in 20 states and the District of Columbia saying that it would no longer sue to block laws decriminalizing marijuana possession at the state level.
Although voters in Colorado and Washington approved laws last year that decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use and 18 states made the medicinal use of the drug legal, it remains a federal crime that has carried with it the threat of federal action. It has been an untenable situation with ordinary Americans caught in the middle.
The department's memo to federal prosecutors cited "limited prosecutorial resources" as the reason to no longer argue with states that have decriminalized pot possession. It was also an acknowledgment that it is past time to prioritize the kinds of drug-related crimes that the federal government will continue to pursue zealously.
The Justice Department is clear about what it expects from states now that once-threatened lawsuits won't be forthcoming. The federal government is insisting that regulations aimed at preventing sales to minors must be a priority. Further, robust and practical plans to deal with the interstate movement of marijuana, gangs, cartels, turf wars and illicit profit must be in place. Few will argue with that.
Advocates of more liberalized marijuana laws are encouraged by the Justice Department's latest moves. Expect a long, strange trip as reefer madness is cautiously set aside, and in socially conservative Pennsylvania that trip will be longer still.