WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Eric Holder gave voters in Washington and Colorado hope Thursday that the Department of Justice may not dramatically interfere with the marijuana legalization initiatives passed in November. Testifying before a House Appropriations subcommittee, he opened a window into DOJ's thinking as it makes its decision.
"We certainly continue to review the marijuana legalization initiatives that were passed in Washington and in Colorado," he said. "I mean, we are certainly going to enforce federal law. That is what we're going to do. Now is what we do across the board? Where there are federal criminal statutes that is the responsibility of the department to enforce them, and in making those enforcement decisions, we take into account how we can best use the resources that we have and we make determinations about where the greatest harm occurs and where we can have the greatest impact."
By leaving open the question of whether resources would be used to enforce the law "across the board," he gave hope to advocates of the measures.
"The attorney general's carefully phrased remarks leave me cautiously optimistic that the administration just might be trying to find a way to let things play out in Colorado and Washington without the Department of Justice getting in the way," said Tom Angell of Marijuana Majority.
Justice spokeswoman Allison Price cautioned against reading too much into his testimony. "The Attorney General was clear that the legalization initiatives in Washington and Colorado are under review by the Department," Price told HuffPost. "There were no additional announcements made in yesterday's hearing."
Shortly after the 2008 election, Holder said that DOJ would not use its resources to target people who are in compliance with the law in states where medical marijuana is legal. However, the DOJ in a number of instances has done just that.
"It's worth remembering that the president and the attorney general said positive things about respecting state medical marijuana laws early in the first term but then allowed DEA and other agencies to close down state-legal providers at an unprecedented rate," Angell said.
Holder said that the goal of federal policy with regard to marijuana in Washington and Colorado was to reduce the harm to children and to prevent violence associated with the trade of pot.
"I think it's even recognized in the Washington and Colorado initiatives that there are certain age limits beyond which the use of marijuana would not be appropriate -- in the same way that we do with alcohol," Holder said. "The ... decision that we make in the department will take into account ... the impact on youth, the whole question of violence, the question of organized crime. All of these kinds of things go into that determination, and the question of how we deploy our resources most effectively."
This article has been updated to include additional comments from Holder.