The notice, sent to all U.S. attorneys by Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole, comes after voters in states including Washington and Colorado have supported legalization of marijuana for medicinal or recreational use. It says the federal government will not become involved if those states maintain strict rules involving distribution of the drug.
The notice acknowledges "marijuana remains an illegal drug under the Controlled Substances Act," but the department will continue to rely on state and local authorities "through enforcement of their own narcotics laws."
A Justice Department official said Attorney General Eric Holder told the governors of Washington and Colorado federal prosecutors would observe the regulatory framework for legal marijuana use and distribution in those states, and reserves the right to revisit the issue in the future.
The Justice Department and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy have been silent about states' marijuana initiatives until Thursday, despite repeated requests for guidance from state officials, The Washington Post reported.
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