Attorney General Jeff Sessions has reversed an Obama administration policy to protect legalized marijuana from federal intervention, directing U.S. attorneys to enforce federal laws across the land.
The move could seriously threaten the rapidly expanding marijuana industry, which has gone from strength to strength – both medically and recreationally – in recent years.
In a newly released memo, Sessions argues that the previous guidance “undermines the rule of law” and has inhibited law enforcement at local, state and federal level from doing its job.
Sessions claims that his move just instructs U.S. attorneys to work with the former established prosecutorial procedures, in order to give them to tools to combat the country’s drug crisis, reduce violent crime and stifle criminal organizations.
Marijuana remains a Schedule I controlled substance at federal level, and prohibits the cultivation, sale and possession of marijuana. Sessions never explicitly said for federal prosecutors to take on the cannabis industry, as confirmed by a Justice Department official, but with Sessions’ long-held anti-marijuana stance, there is rightful concern.
Indeed, Senator Cory Gardner, a Republican representing Colorado, a state which legalized recreational marijuana in 2014, blasted the move. The senator has indicated he may delay the confirmation process for Sessions’ top Department of Justice (DOJ) selections.
Colorado U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer said that his focus was already on searching out and prosecuting those presenting the biggest safety risks to communities in the state on marijuana matters. In a statement, Troyer said that his office would “continue to take this approach” in working with law enforcement, in accordance to the AG’s guidance.
Old Justice Department policy, set out in a 2013 memo written by ex-deputy AG James Cole, said that federal prosecutors would concentrate on the sale of marijuana to minors, the cultivation of the herb on federal land, the transportation and sale of cannabis across state borders and issues involving organized crime or gangs.
The old policy gave the industry a safe harbor to operate, according to a current senior Justice Department official.
The Attorney General’s decision comes just three days after California, the largest state in the nation, started selling recreational marijuana. There are now medical marijuana programs, to varying degrees in 28 U.S. states, and a total of eight (Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon and Washington) have legalized recreational cannabis since the beginning of 2014.
Sessions’ shock move is unlikely to be popular with the American public, after a recent poll revealed that a whopping 64 percent are now in favor of marijuana legalization.
Drug Policy Alliance executive director Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno scolded Sessions’ “obsession with marijuana prohibition,” saying it “defies logic.” With states implementing successful reforms and public opinion shifting, Sánchez-Moreno called on Congress to halt the AG’s agenda by giving states additional protection from federal meddling.
Human Rights Watch spokesperson Jasmine Taylor described Sessions as “out of touch” with science and the public, and that prosecuting marijuana offenders will just unnecessarily fill the jails.
“This will no doubt spike arrests and fuel mass incarceration,” said Taylor, who voiced specific concern for people of color. However, she said the renewed war on drugs came as no surprise, given the Trump administration’s “harsh policies that trample rights.”
The warning of a serious legal battle between U.S. attorneys and legalized states came from Amy Margolis of Greenspoon Marder. Those that enforce federal law in the faces of voters and (in certain cases) state legislatures are sure to find major opposition to their moves.
Should federal law enforcement act with the might some fear, expect a slew of cases where individuals and vendors acting perfectly legally within their state face criminal charges. Margolis also told NBC News that things could get even more complicated in big states such as California, with different districts potentially applying different versions of federal law – state lines within state lines, if you will.
The prospect of expensive court cases could deter on-the-fence people from trying marijuana, and businesses from giving the industry their full-throated support. The Obama administration’s guidelines gave companies financial security, which promoted larger investment and speedy innovation.
But not everybody is against the news, with Kevin Sabet, an anti-cannabis activist, regarding it a “good day for public health.” However, Sabet’s comments speak of somebody ill-informed of the cannabis product industry.
His criticism of edibles as “kid-friendly” ignores the point that legalization has allowed for the development of much safer consumption methods than smoking, from vaping to medical oils to creams. Sabet heads the Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) group, but seems to be against products which are making pot safer for all.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions restarting the marijuana war is one of the least-surprising developments of the Trump administration. In a 2016 Senate hearing, the Alabamian notoriously said that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.” Sessions has also been accused of saying that he thought the Ku Klax Klan was “OK until I [Sessions] found out that they smoked pot,” by his late assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Figures. Sessions has repeatedly asserted these comments were made in jest.
What are your thoughts on AG Sessions’ move to rollback Obama-era policies on marijuana? Let us know in the comments.