Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made it abundantly clear that he’s no fan of marijuana and now it seems he’s planning to unleash the full power of federal law enforcement on states that have legalized weed.
According to a report Thursday from the Associated Press, which cites two unnamed sources from the Department of Justice, Sessions is going to rescind an Obama-era policy that guides federal prosecutors on when to target marijuana growers, sellers, and other businesspeople in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, California, and other states where the drug is now legal.
The move doesn’t appear to be a direct crackdown, but it will reportedly allow U.S. Attorneys to prosecute marijuana cases at their own discretion. Previously, federal prosecutors were instructed to only pursue cases where marijuana was being shipped illegally across state lines, sold to children, or other flagrant violations of state and federal law.
The Department of Justice did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Erik Altieri, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), warned that the move by Sessions “flies in the face of sensible public policy and broad public opinion,” and imperils an industry estimated to be worth $16 billion.
Support for marijuana legalization is currently at a record-high, with 64 percent of Americans now saying its use should be made legal, according to a Gallup poll from October 2017. The poll also found that for the first time in history, a majority of Republicans — 51 percent — are in favor of allowing legal weed.
“The American people will not just sit idly by while he upends all the progress that has been made in dialing back the mass incarceration fueled by marijuana arrests and destabilizes an industry now responsible for over 150,000 jobs,” Altieri said. “Ending our disgraceful war on marijuana is the will of the people and the Trump Administration can expect severe backlash for opposing it."
Sessions, himself a former federal prosecutor, has long been a vehement opponent of marijuana legalization and an outspoken advocate for strict enforcement of drug laws. Sessions previously remarked that “good people don’t smoke marijuana,” and he spent much of 2017 meeting with opponents of legalization and reviewing the Obama-era policies that enabled state-level legalization to succeed.
Kevin Sabet, president and CEO of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, one of several anti-marijuana advocates who met with Sessions last month, told the AP that the move by Sessions was a “victory” for those who oppose legal weed.
“There is no more safe haven with regard to the federal government and marijuana, but it’s also the beginning of the story and not the end,” Sabet said. “This is a victory. It’s going to dry up a lot of the institutional investment that has gone toward marijuana in the last five years.”
The AP report doesn’t name the specific policy that Sessions reportedly plans to change, but it appears to reference a Justice Department memorandum known as the Cole memo, issued in 2013 by former Deputy Attorney General Jim Cole. Sessions said as recently as November that the policy would remain in effect.
"Our policy is the same, really, fundamentally as the Holder-Lynch policy, which is that the federal law remains in effect and a state can legalize marijuana for its law enforcement purposes but it still remains illegal with regard to federal purposes," Sessions said during a congressional hearing, referring to his predecessors in the Obama administration.
The impact of the policy shift remains to be seen, and will depend largely on how individual prosecutors decide to act. Trump has been slow to pick new federal prosecutors to replace the Obama appointees he fired en masse last year, but Sessions has been busy installing his own people, appointing 17 interim U.S. Attorneys on Wednesday.
“It’s really tough to tell what is actually going to happen,” Morgan Fox, spokesman for Marijuana Policy Project. “Maybe it’s just a way for Sessions to say, ‘I’m going to enforce whatever federal law I feel like, I’m not going to be bound by those Obama-era memos.’”
The policy reversal, which comes just two days after California’s recreational marijuana law took effect, appears to break a promise made on the campaign trail by President Donald Trump to respect state decisions on marijuana law. For that reason, Sessions has been under fire from former Trump advisor Roger Stone and other conservatives who are at odds with his opposition to marijuana legalization.
Maria McFarland, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, told VICE News that it will be up to Congress — especially Republicans who are in favor of drug policy reform — to ensure that the Justice Department under Sessions doesn’t follow through with a crackdown on legal weed. She noted that Congress has already prohibited the Justice Department from spending taxpayer money to go after medical marijuana businesses that comply with state law, and suggested that something similar could be enacted for recreational weed.
“For someone who cares about state’s rights, I’d love to see some of Sessions’ colleagues hold his feet to the fire on this one,” McFarland said. “There are many Republicans who support legal marijuana and support state rights to make decision about these issues. I would hope and expect that they too would be questioning this. Congress at this point should really be taking a close look at this.”