Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made it abundantly clear that he’s no fan of marijuana and he’s unleashing the full power of federal law enforcement on states that have legalized weed.
The Department of Justice announced Thursday that Sessions is rescinding 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 announcement confirms an earlier report about the move from the Associated Press.
The move doesn’t appear to be a direct crackdown, but it will allow U.S. Attorneys to prosecute marijuana cases at their own discretion. Previously, federal prosecutors were instructed to only pursue cases that involved flagrant violations of state law, such as marijuana being shipped across state lines or sold to children.
The Justice Department called the move a “return to the rule of law,” and said has instructed federal prosecutors “to follow well-established principles when pursuing prosecutions related to marijuana activities.”
“Today's memo on federal marijuana enforcement simply directs all U.S. Attorneys to use previously established prosecutorial principles that provide them all the necessary tools to disrupt criminal organizations, tackle the growing drug crisis, and thwart violent crime across our country," Sessions said in a statement.
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. He previously remarked that “good people don’t smoke marijuana,” and 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, called Thursday’s announcement “very bad news for the pot industry.” Sabet said the announcement could “dry up a lot of funding” and discourage people from investing in marijuana businesses, but it doesn’t necessarily signal a sweeping crackdown.
“This is guidance to U.S. Attorneys,” Sabet said. “This is not what the attorney general will do tomorrow [or an indication] that he will sue the states. Frankly all that’s still up for discussion.”
Sabet added that there are “state legislators around the country who are telling me this is what they need to vote no on legalization his year.” He said the announcement by Sessions shows the federal government “will not tolerate” legal weed.
The announcement by Sessions rescinds 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.”
Several elected officials hit back on Sessions on Thursday, including governors, senators, and representatives from states where marijuana is legal. Washington Governor Jay Inslee hinted at possible legal action, saying he would “vigorously defend our state’s laws against undue federal infringement.”
“Trump promised to let states set their own marijuana policies,” said Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden. “Now he's breaking that promise so Jeff Sessions can pursue his extremist anti-marijuana crusade."
Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican, said on Twitter that the move by Sessions “directly contradicts” comments he made prior to his confirmation as attorney general. Gardner also slammed Sessions for failing to notify Congress of the policy change in advance, which he said “trampled on the will of the voters” in Colorado and other states.
Gardner added that he is “prepared to take all steps necessary, including holding DOJ nominees, until the Attorney General lives up to the commitment he made to me prior to his confirmation.”
The full policy memo from Sessions is included below.
This story was updated at 1:15 p.m. ET