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US marijuana policy edges toward acceptance

The US government considers marijuana an illegal drug. But Attorney General Eric Holder says the Justice Department will issue banking regulations for state-approved marijuana businesses.

Uncle Sam isn’t ready to light up just yet, but the Obama administration and at least some Republican governors seem to be edging toward a more accepting attitude toward marijuana use. Or at least they’re falling in line with that majority of Americans – 58 percent, according to Gallup – who favor legalization of marijuana.

US Attorney General Eric Holder this week said the federal government will issue banking regulations for state-approved marijuana businesses licensed to sell the drug for recreational or medical use.

Cannabis is still classified as an illegal narcotic under the federal Controlled Substances Act, which has put Washington at odds with the 21 states and the District of Columbia allowing medical marijuana – California was the first in 1996 – and especially with the two states that have recently approved marijuana for recreational use by adults.

Colorado now licenses distributors of recreational marijuana, Washington State is slated to do so later this year, and several other states – California, Oregon, and Alaska among them – are expected to consider the issue this year.

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The problem, as marijuana distributors, regulators in states where marijuana is legal, and Attorney General Holder himself recognize, is that until now such businesses have not had legal access to banking services and credit. And even where marijuana is legal under state law, many bankers remain wary – concerned about what could happen under that federal law, which lumps in marijuana with cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine.

That means conducting business in what can be large amounts of cash, which can be an accounting nightmare as well as dangerous.

“There’s a public safety component to this,” Holder said this week at the University of Virginia. “Huge amounts of cash – substantial amounts of cash just kind of lying around with no place for it to be appropriately deposited – is something that would worry me just from a law enforcement perspective.”

In a long New Yorker profile, President Obama said he thinks marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol. More significantly, perhaps, he seemed to comment approvingly about Colorado’s and Washington State’s new laws legalizing small amounts of recreational marijuana for adults.

“It’s not something I encourage, and I’ve told my daughters I think it’s a bad idea, a waste of time, not very healthy,” he told New Yorker Editor David Remnick.

But what clearly troubles Obama, Remnick writes, is the radically disproportionate arrests and incarcerations for marijuana among minorities.

“Middle-class kids don’t get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do,” Obama said. “And African-American kids and Latino kids are more likely to be poor and less likely to have the resources and the support to avoid unduly harsh penalties.”

Even though Obama says marijuana legalization is no panacea, he does think it’s important for what amounts to a ground-breaking social and legal experiment in Colorado and Washington to “go forward because it’s important for society not to have a situation in which a large portion of people have at one time or another broken the law and only a select few get punished.”

Meanwhile, some Republican governors are moving in the direction of at least decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana.

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Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this week, Texas Gov. Rick Perry said his policy is “to implement policies that start us toward a decriminalization and keeps people from going to prison and destroying their lives.”

At a press conference Wednesday, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said he would support a strictly-controlled medical marijuana program.

During his inauguration speech Tuesday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said, “We will end the failed war on drugs that believes that incarceration is the cure of every ill caused by drug abuse.”

“We will make drug treatment available to as many of our non-violent offenders as we can and we will partner with our citizens to create a society that understands this simple truth: every life has value and no life is disposable,” Christie said.

For now, the focus in what has been a federal-state conflict over marijuana is on Holder’s announcement that the Justice Department will issue banking regulations for state-approved marijuana businesses.

“Everyone recognizes that the banking issue has created serious public safety and accountability problems for this new industry,” Mike Elliott, executive director of the Colorado-based Medical Marijuana Industry Group told Time. “We urge Mr. Holder, the Treasury Department, and the Obama Administration to move quickly to create regulations that allow the legal marijuana industry, its employees, and customers to do business with banks just as any other business sector does.”