"Regardless of any changes in state law, including the change that will go into effect on Dec. 6 [Thursday] in Washington state, growing, selling or possessing any amount of marijuana remains illegal under federal law," statement issued by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Seattle Wednesday said.
Voters in Washington and Colorado approved ballot initiatives Election Day that decriminalized the possession of as much as an ounce of marijuana by adults. The Washington state law was effective Thursday and Colorado's law will go into effect in the coming weeks.
The Justice Department stance sets up a potential court fight between the federal government and the states, The Washington Post reported Wednesday. Even though measures violated federal drug laws, the Justice Department so far hasn't provided guidance despite requests from both states, officials said.
Under federal law, marijuana is considered a Schedule 1 drug, the same category as LSD and heroin.
"The department's responsibility to enforce the Controlled Substances Act remains unchanged," the statement said. "Neither states nor the executive branch can nullify a statute passed by Congress."
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment beyond the statement, which also said the department was still reviewing the Colorado and Washington state initiatives, the Post said.
But while possessing marijuana for recreational use in Washington state is decriminalized, buying it remains a felony, CNN reported.
"It begs the question, if they can't buy it through a medical marijuana shop, which only people with a prescription and medical marijuana license can, how do they get it?" Washington State Liquor Control Board spokesman Brian Smith asked Wednesday.
Officials said it could take a year before there are rules developed for growing and selling marijuana under provisions of the initiative.
Until then, growing and selling marijuana will be prosecuted as felonies, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg told CNN.
"So I'm not sure where you're suppose to get it," Satterberg said. "If you stumble across some on the street or it falls from the sky, then you can have it. Otherwise, you are part of a criminal chain of distribution."