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Marijuana: Rumblings about federal crackdown on Colorado over Amendment 64

At this point, there's still no official word from the Justice Department about a response to Amendment 64, the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act. But as a similar law in Washington state went into effect at midnight yesterday, prompting a smoke-out at the Space Needle, a New York Times article suggested that the feds are leaning toward intervention. Is the Times piece a trial balloon or a bomb about to drop?

Perhaps it's both. The Obama administration, like those that have preceded it over a span of decades, tends to use the Times to test reactions to policy moves and the like before they're formalized. When viewed in that context, the item, headlined "Administration Weighs Legal Action Against States That Legalized Marijuana Use," has an ominous undertone. Writer Charlie Savage maintains that "high-level meetings" have been held since the election to grapple with conflicts between federal law, which considers marijuana a Schedule I narcotic, and the measures in Colorado and Washington state, which permit adult recreational use of an ounce or less of marijuana. In this context, Savage writes, "Senior White House and Justice Department officials are considering plans for legal action."

Also highlighted is a statement just released by Jenny Durkan, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington. It reads:

The Department of Justice is reviewing the legalization initiatives recently passed in Colorado and Washington State. The Department's responsibility to enforce the Controlled Substances Act remains unchanged. Neither States nor the Executive branch can nullify a statute passed by Congress. In enacting the Controlled Substances Act, Congress determined that marijuana is a Schedule I controlled substance. Regardless of any changes in state law, including the change that will go into effect on December 6th in Washington State, growing, selling or possessing any amount of marijuana remains illegal under federal law. Members of the public are also advised to remember that it remains against federal law to bring any amount of marijuana onto federal property, including all federal buildings, national parks and forests, military installations, and courthouses.

Savage adds the following caveat:

Federal officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter. Several cautioned that the issue had raised complex legal and policy considerations -- including enforcement priorities, litigation strategy and the impact of international antidrug treaties -- that remain unresolved, and that no decision was imminent.

This last assertion argues for the trial-balloon theory. With the fiscal cliff looming, don't expect any statement until after Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper signs Amendment 64, likely during the first week of 2013. Shortly thereafter, we should have a better idea whether the federal government will allow Colorado and Washington to move forward with establishing a retail system for marijuana, or if the Department of Justice will harsh that buzz.

More from our Marijuana archive: "Video: Marijuana-smoking celebration at Space Needle type of event Denver DA hopes to avoid."