DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA: The U.S. Justice Department on Thursday issued surprise guidance directing its attorneys not to sue states that have moved to de-criminalise the recreational use of marijuana, so long as those states implement strict regulatory regimes.
The announcement marks a turnaround for the administration of President Barack Obama, who in January refused to explicitly support cannabis legalisation. Yet analysts are also suggesting that the new policy stance will have significant repercussions for countries that have been at the receiving end of the U.S. “war on drugs”.
“This action is of enormous significance, especially in Latin America, where the United States has for decades been the chief cheerleader for and major exporter of its own punitive drug policy,” John Walsh, a senior associate for drug policy at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a rights group, told IPS.
“Latin American and other countries have felt bound by various treaties not to experiment with regulatory approaches that they think could do a better job, so the significance here is in providing space in the knowledge that the U.S., at least, is not in a position to pressure them anymore.”
Indeed, the United States is seen as the major architect of three United Nations treaties that codify four decades’ worth of “prohibitionist” anti-drugs policies. While these policies today constitute the global norm, some analysts suggest it is currently breaking down.
In the United States, strict “mandatory minimum” jail sentences have seen the federal prison population explode to record numbers in recent years. Of the country’s 219,000 inmates – called “historically unprecedented” numbers – half are locked up on drug-related and overwhelmingly non-violent charges.
Earlier this month, U.S. Attorney-General Eric Holder rescinded mandatory minimum sentence guidelines for a range of crimes, including non-violent drug offences.
“As the so-called ‘war on drugs’ enters its fifth decade, we need to ask whether it, and the approaches that comprise it, have been truly effective,” Holder stated on Aug. 12, “and … to usher in a new approach.”
“Affirmatively addressing” priorities
Thursday’s announcement will remove several significant hurdles for lawmakers and entrepreneurs in the states of Washington and Colorado, where in November voters approved the legalisation of the production, distribution and use of non-medical marijuana. Such policies would be among the most permissive anywhere in the world, but they also directly contradict federal law.
In the context of this discrepancy, in recent years the Justice Department has continued to carry out irregular raids and harassment of growers and distributors of medical marijuana even in the 21 states that have formally authorised the physician-prescribed use of the drug. (Sixteen states have also decriminalised first-time offences for small amounts of cannabis.)
The new guidelines now direct federal attorneys not to pursue litigation so long as marijuana is not being sold to minors or funnelled into states that have not legalised its recreational use.
While the Justice Department memorandum will provide increased legal certainty for those involved in these new experiments in regulation, it goes much further than offering mere grudging promises not to interfere. Rather, officials suggest that de-criminalisation of marijuana could ultimately be more successful than criminalisation in achieving a menu of stated federal policy aims.