U.S. Department of Justice
Office of the Deputy Attorney General

The Deputy Attorney General Washington, D.C. 20530
February 14, 2014


FROM: James M. Cole, Deputy Attorney General
SUBJECT : Guidance Regarding Marijuana Related Federal Crimes

On August 29, 2013, the Department issued guidance (August 29 guidance) to federal prosecutors concerning marijuana enforcement under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). The August 29 guidance reiterated the Department’s commitment to enforcing the CSA consistent with Congress’ determination that marijuana is a dangerous drug that serves as a significant source of revenue to large-scale criminal enterprises, gangs, and cartels. In furtherance of that commitment, the August 29 guidance instructed Department attorneys and law enforcement to focus on the following eight priorities in enforcing the CSA against marijuana-related conduct:

  • Preventing the distribution of marijuana to minors;
  • Preventing revenue from the sale of marijuana from going to criminal enterprises, gangs, and cartels;
  • Preventing the diversion of marijuana from states where it is legal under state law in some form to other states;
  • Preventing state-authorized marijuana activity from being used as a cover or pretext for the trafficking of other illegal drugs or other illegal activity;
  • Preventing violence and the use of firearms in the cultivation and distribution of marijuana;
  • Preventing drugged driving and the exacerbation of other adverse public health consequences associated with marijuana use;
  • Preventing the growing of marijuana on public lands and the attendant public safety and environmental dangers posed by marijuana production on public lands; and
  • Preventing marijuana possession or use on federal property.

Under the August 29 guidance, whether marijuana-related conduct implicates one or more of these enforcement priorities should be the primary question in considering prosecution under the CSA. Although the August 29 guidance was issued in response to recent marijuana legalization initiatives in certain states, it applies to all Department marijuana enforcement nationwide. The guidance, however, did not specifically address what, if any, impact it would have on certain financial crimes for which marijuana-related conduct is a predicate.

The provisions of the money laundering statutes, the unlicensed money remitter statute, and the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) remain in effect with respect to marijuana-related conduct. Financial transactions involving proceeds generated by marijuana-related conduct can form the basis for prosecution under the money laundering statutes (18 U.S.C. §§ 1956 and 1957), the unlicensed money transmitter statute (18 U.S.C. § 1960), and the BSA. Sections 1956 and 1957 of Title 18 make it a criminal offense to engage in certain financial and monetary transactions with the proceeds of a “specified unlawful activity,” including proceeds from marijuana-related violations of the CSA. Transactions by or through a money transmitting business involving funds “derived from” marijuana-related conduct can also serve as a predicate for prosecution under 18 U.S.C. § 1960. Additionally, financial institutions that conduct transactions with money generated by marijuana-related conduct could face criminal liability under the BSA for, among other things, failing to identify or report financial transactions that involved the proceeds of marijuana-related violations of the CSA. See, e.g., 31 U.S.C. § 5318(g). Notably for these purposes, prosecution under these offenses based on transactions involving marijuana proceeds does not require an underlying marijuana-related conviction under federal or state law.

As noted in the August 29 guidance, the Department is committed to using its limited investigative and prosecutorial resources to address the most significant marijuana-related cases in an effective and consistent way. Investigations and prosecutions of the offenses enumerated above based upon marijuana-related activity should be subject to the same consideration and prioritization. Therefore, in determining whether to charge individuals or institutions with any of these offenses based on marijuana-related violations of the CSA, prosecutors should apply the eight enforcement priorities described in the August 29 guidance and reiterated above. Footnote 1.  For example, if a financial institution or individual provides banking services to a marijuana-related business knowing that the business is diverting marijuana from a state where marijuana sales are regulated to ones where such sales are illegal under state law, or is being used by a criminal organization to conduct financial transactions for its criminal goals, such as the concealment of funds derived from other illegal activity or the use of marijuana proceeds to support other illegal activity, prosecution for violations of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1956, 1957, 1960 or the BSA might be appropriate. Similarly, if the financial institution or individual is willfully blind to such activity by, for example, failing to conduct appropriate due diligence of the customers’ activities, such prosecution might be appropriate. Conversely, if a financial institution or individual offers services to a marijuana-related business whose activities do not implicate any of the eight priority factors, prosecution for these offenses may not be appropriate.

The August 29 guidance rested on the expectation that states that have enacted laws authorizing marijuana-related conduct will implement clear, strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems in order to minimize the threat posed to federal enforcement priorities. Consequently, financial institutions and individuals choosing to service marijuana-related businesses that are not compliant with such state regulatory and enforcement systems, or that operate in states lacking a clear and robust regulatory scheme, are more likely to risk entanglement with conduct that implicates the eight federal enforcement priorities. Footnote 2. In addition, because financial institutions are in a position to facilitate transactions by marijuana-related businesses that could implicate one or more of the priority factors, financial institutions must continue to apply appropriate risk-based anti-money laundering policies, procedures, and controls sufficient to address the risks posed by these customers, including by conducting customer due diligence designed to identify conduct that relates to any of the eight priority factors. Moreover, as the Department’s and FinCEN’s guidance are designed to complement each other, it is essential that financial institutions adhere to FinCEN’s guidance. Footnote 3. Prosecutors should continue to review marijuana-related prosecutions on a case-by-case basis and weigh all available information and evidence in determining whether particular conduct falls within the identified priorities.

As with the Department’s previous statements on this subject, this memorandum is intended solely as a guide to the exercise of investigative and prosecutorial discretion. This memorandum does not alter in any way the Department’s authority to enforce federal law, including federal laws relating to marijuana, regardless of state law. Neither the guidance herein nor any state or local law provides a legal defense to a violation of federal law, including any civil or criminal violation of the CSA, the money laundering and unlicensed money transmitter statutes, or the BSA, including the obligation of financial institutions to conduct customer due diligence. Even in jurisdictions with strong and effective regulatory systems, evidence that particular conduct of a person or entity threatens federal priorities will subject that person or entity to federal enforcement action, based on the circumstances. This memorandum is not intended, does not, and may not be relied upon to create any rights, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law by any party in any matter civil or criminal. It applies prospectively to the exercise of prosecutorial discretion in future cases and does not provide defendants or subjects of enforcement action with a basis for reconsideration of any pending civil action or criminal prosecution. Finally, nothing herein precludes investigation or prosecution, even in the absence of any one of the factors listed above, in particular circumstances where investigation and prosecution otherwise serves an important federal interest.


1. The Department of the Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) is issuing concurrent guidance to clarify BSA expectations for financial institutions seeking to provide services to marijuana-related businesses. The FinCEN guidance addresses the filing of Suspicious Activity Reports (SAR) with respect to marijuana-related businesses, and in particular the importance of considering the eight federal enforcement priorities mentioned above, as well as state law. As discussed in FinCEN’s guidance, a financial institution providing financial services to a marijuana-related business that it reasonably believes, based on its customer due diligence, does not implicate one of the federal enforcement priorities or violate state law, would file a “Marijuana Limited”  SAR, which would include streamlined information. Conversely, a financial institution filing a SAR on a marijuana-related business it reasonably believes, based on its customer due diligence, implicates one of the federal priorities or violates state law, would be label the SAR “Marijuana Priority,” and the content of the SAR would include comprehensive details in accordance with existing regulations and guidance.

2. For example, financial institutions should recognize that a marijuana-related business operating in a state that has not legalized marijuana would likely result in the proceeds going to a criminal organization.

3. Under FinCEN’s guidance, for instance, a marijuana-related business that is not appropriately licensed or is operating in violation of state law presents red flags that would justify the filing of a Marijuana Priority SAR.