The Obama administration reiterated its new liberal pot policy before a key Senate committee in September, and the head of the committee said federal anti-marijuana laws need to change.

“We must have a smarter approach to marijuana policy,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “The absolute criminalization of personal marijuana use has contributed to our nation’s soaring prison population and has disproportionately affected people of color.”

But there were no new announcements at the Sept. 10 hearing or constructive promises to change federal law. The hearing was long awaited by marijuana advocates, many of whom view the new policy as a potential turning point in the war on drugs. Yet most of what was said had been heard before. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder did not testify, as Leahy had requested.

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New Federal Marijuana Policy

In late August, the Department of Justice issued a memo to each of its U.S. attorneys instructing them not to interfere with states instituting legal or medical marijuana. They were also told not to prosecute pot providers simply because they run large or profitable businesses.

In return, the states must enforce rigorous regulations to meet certain federal priorities, such as keeping the drug away from minors and preventing gang and cartel involvement in the marijuana trade.

Deputy Attorney General James Cole, who wrote the memo, told the committee the regulations must be “tough in practice, not just on paper. It must include strong enforcement efforts, backed by adequate funding.”

Trusting Colorado?

That didn’t satisfy the anti-weed forces at the hearing. Sen. Chuck Grasley, R-Iowa, said he didn’t think state regulations would be enough to keep marijuana use from spreading. He cited Colorado as an example of a state that has done a poor job of preventing transport of pot to other states.

Cannabis is now legal in Colorado, as it is in Washington. Eighteen other states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes. The memo applies to both recreational and medical marijuana, so all 20 states are covered.

“Why has the Justice Department decided to trust Colorado?” Grassley asked. “Colorado has become a significant exporter of marijuana.”

Problems With The Marijuana Program

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If a state’s regulations fail to live up to federal priorities, Justice reserves the right to sue to dismantle its marijuana program. And federal prosecutors can always go after dispensaries and other providers if they believe they’re violating state law or the terms of the new policy. In fact, since they have broad discretion in how they carry out their jobs, aggressive U.S. attorneys could thumb their noses at the directive entirely and harass any providers they choose.

The hearing brought up another critical problem facing providers and users: the lack of banking services. Because pot is illegal under federal law, banks, credit unions and other financial institutions are barred from doing business with providers. This forces weed shops and customers to deal only in cash, upping the risk of robbery and delegitimizing a legal business.

Cole told the committee this was an issue “we need to deal with” and that “we’re working on it.”

At the same time the memo was released in August, Holder told the governors of Washington and Colorado that Justice was “actively considering” ways to regulate dealings between marijuana shops and banks.

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