Obama Administration: States Can Have Their Pot, and Smoke It Too

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Aug. 29 2013 3:02 PM

Obama Administration: States Can Have Their Pot, and Smoke It Too

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President Obama talks with Barbara Walters during a taping of The View on July 28, 2010.The president told Walters in an ABC interview last year that “it would not make sense for us to see a top priority as going after recreational users in states that have determined that it’s legal.” And now Obama has put his policy where his mouth is.

Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Hasta la vista, Judgment Day. From now on, Aug. 29 might be better known as Weed Freedom Day, up there with April 20 as a national holiday observed by the dedicated herbalists among us.

Today Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole sent a memo to the attorneys general of all 50 states, declaring a cease-fire over state laws legalizing medical and recreational use of marijuana. As the Washington Post reports, Cole also personally called up the governors of Colorado and Washington state, which last fall decriminalized possession of less than an ounce of pot, to tell them about the new drug rules. And it's not just Colorado and Washington that might be affected; don't forget that 18 states, plus the District of Columbia, have legalized medical marijuana, all in technical violation of the federal Controlled Substances Act.

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The Obama administration isn't straight-up legalizing weed, though. The new policy is laced with eight caveats that in effect require states to deal with marijuana pretty much they way they deal with alcohol: no distributing to minors, no growing on public land, no taking weed across state lines into places that have prohibited it. Essentially, the administration is repeating one of its favorite policy stances: This is illegal, but we don't care.

Coming on the heels of Cole's boss doing away with mandatory minimum sentencing for low-level drug offenders and a certain 50th-anniversary march that reminded the nation that drug laws disproportionately put away minorities, Cole's announcement is a rare victory for federalism—strict constructionists argue that the whole crossing-state-lines thing is the only component of federal drug law that's even constitutional—as well as a sign that the tough-on-crime era really is ending and a reason for potheads to celebrate the way they know best. After all, it's 4:20 somewhere.

Ryan Vogt is a Slate copy editor.

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