Justice Department poised to respond to states that have legalized marijuana

Amid the celebrations for President Barack Obama's swearing-in ceremony in January, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper met with Attorney General Eric Holder during an inaugural reception in Washington, D.C., where the two men discussed an unorthodox topic, given their surroundings: marijuana.

Colorado and Washington state legalized the recreational use of marijuana in 2012, and Hickenlooper was concerned about how the federal government planned to respond. The new laws set the stage for what could be a sticky conflict between the state and federal government. Although the drug is now legal under state law, it is still banned under the federal Controlled Substances Act, Holder's Department of Justice is tasked to enforce. The states are still waiting for an answer from the feds, and Hickenlooper's inauguration chat with Holder was just one of many conversations in an ongoing discussion between the DOJ and state government officials.

Recalling the meeting, Hickenlooper said that Holder expressed that he was open to re-examining how the federal government deals with marijuana use in states that have legalized it, and was considering a variety of actions, including prioritizing enforcement, overhauling the department's rules and even pushing for a change in the law through Congress.

"They're open to all that," Hickenlooper told Yahoo News during a visit to Washington, D.C., last weekend. "He's been very candid in the sense that we've got to work on this together."

As to when there will be a solution, Hickenlooper and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee may not be forced to wait long for an answer. During a visit to the National Association of Attorneys General on Tuesday, Holder told Colorado Attorney General John Suthers that he would have an answer to the governors' requests soon and said the DOJ was in the "last stages of that review and we’re trying to make a determination as to what the policy ramifications are going to be."

But given the uncharted territory, there still does not appear to be a clear and easy solution to the problem.

"It's a challenge for everybody," Hickenlooper said. "They're looking at how they can adjust something in the rule-making, is there something in the regulatory framework that we can accommodate the will of the voters? Can we do it in such a way that it doesn't endanger or put undue pressures on our neighboring states or our other states? No one's got the answer on this one."

Inslee, who also said he was looking forward to an answer from Holder, faces the same hurdles in his state. In February, he sent a detailed, nine-page letter to the DOJ outlining step by step how the state government plans to proceed on marijuana legalization. "As governor, I am obligated to carry out the will of Washington voters," the letter read. "Clearly, the world is watching the states of Colorado and Washington as their initiatives are implemented. We intend to do it right."