Marijuana movements already simmering across the country could get a big boost from the Obama Administration's announcement Thursday that it would take a laid-back approach to states with softer laws on marijuana.
"This is one of the most significant milestones in the movement toward ending marijuana prohibition in this country," says Mason Tvert, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, which advocates for legalization and regulation of marijuana. The group has led several ballot initiatives around the country.
"The federal government for the first time ever has sent a clear signal to states that they can adopt their own marijuana policies if they don them in a responsible manner."
Two states, Colorado and Washington, have legalized marijuana, and 20 states have approved marijuana for medical use. Until Attorney General Eric Holder's announcement Thursday, marijuana users in those states could face federal prosecution even if they adhered to state laws and local regulations.
Under the new guidelines, the Justice Department will not challenge state laws and prosecutors may not bring cases against individual users unless they violate eight federal priorities, including marijuana distribution to minors or as a cover for drug trafficking operations.
Political opponents of marijuana legalization can no longer cite the federal government as a reason to squelch reform, Tvert said.
Marijuana legalization advocates are already geared up for 2014 and 2016 elections with ballot initiatives in a number of states, including Alaska, California, Maine, Nevada and Oregon, says Stephen Gutwillig, deputy executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates a public-health approach to drug use.
Tvert said he expects to see legalization measures by 2016 in Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana and Nevada.
"The victories in Colorado and Washington were already so significant that a number of activists in a number of states were already planning similar campaigns," Gutwillig said. "The announcement, if anything, will embolden those campaigns and potentially inspire activists and elected officials elsewhere who were waiting to see the official federal response."
Drug abuse prevention groups say they will work to derail the movement. Arthur Dean, CEO of the Community Anti-Drug Coalition, said he had expected the Justice Department to "reaffirm federal law and slow down this freight train."
" Instead, this decision sends a message to our citizens, youth, communities, states, and the international community at large that the enforcement of federal law related to marijuana is not a priority," Dean said. "We remain gravely concerned that we as a nation are turning a blind eye to the serious public health and public safety threats associated with widespread marijuana use."
Gutwillig sees the greatest potential for the movement among state legislators who may have feared tangling with the Justice Department if they passed laws in conflict with federal statutes. The new federal guidelines tell states that robust state regulation of marijuana will likely met the federal government's drug control goals if they keep drugs away from kids and criminals.
The Drug Police Alliances expects to see bills introduced on the whole range of marijuana reform, Gutwillig said. Legislators in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania have said they would advance bills in upcoming legislative sessions, he said.
"Just from a policy perspective, that's going to encourage state elected officials. This isn't just the feds looking the other way," he said. "This is an acknowledgement that state regulation can work in concert with the federal government on a more effective way of dealing with the realities of marijuana in our communities today."