Trump administration drops Obama-era easing of marijuana prosecutions

United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington in December
United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington in December. Carolyn Kaster AP
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08 January, 2018

It was not immediately clear what practical effect the attorney general's decision would have in states that have legalized marijuana or on the increasingly sophisticated and lucrative legal pot industry.

California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones is not happy with U.S. Attorney General Sessions' recent marijuana enforcement memo rescinding Obama administration guidance that enabled states to legalize marijuana without federal intervention.

Coos County Sherriff Craig Zanni said, "This is now a federal issue related to a change of federal prosecutor's directives. These principles require federal prosecutors deciding which cases to prosecute to weigh all relevant considerations, including federal law enforcement priorities set by the Attorney General". And while Sessions' memo does not instruct federal prosecutors to bring more marijuana cases, he could order stricter enforcement in the future.

Although the drug is legal for recreational use in California, the announcement by Attorney General Jeff Sessions opened up the possibility that growers and dispensaries could be prosecuted for violations of federal law, as marijuana is still a controlled substance at the federal level.

"At the Oregon Department of Justice we will continue to make sure Oregon's marijuana industry thrives under our carefully considered state regulatory requirements".

Arcview Group, an Oakland investment and market research firm that studies the cannabis industry, forecast an $11 billion US market for legal marijuana this year - just over 60 percent for medical use, the rest for recreational use - and said it would continue to expand.

"The Cole memo as interpreted created a safe harbor for the marijuana industry to operate in these states".

Marijuana is legal in eight states and the District of Columbia for recreational use.

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Growing marijuana might be a little riskier on a large scale. Sessions has railed against marijuana for years.

But many states, including North Dakota and Minnesota, have passed laws decriminalizing the drug for medical reasons. Federal law forbids the growing, use, and buying or selling of marijuana.

In a written statement Thursday, Sessions called the shift a "return to the rule of law" but he did not go as far as some advocates had feared he might, stopping short of explicitly directing more prosecutions, resources or other efforts to take down the industry as a whole. But if you're flying under the radar with a small-but-illegal operation, why risk it? Justice Department officials said they would follow the law but would not preclude the possibility of medical-marijuana related prosecutions.

Politicians and officials from several states lashed out at Sessions' move, most indicating they will continue to back recreational pot sales. While Vicente isn't telling any of his clients to head for the hills, he is telling them to be extra careful.

"This is an industry that Oregonians have chosen - and one I will do everything in my legal authority to protect", Rosenblum said.

"It is the mission of the Department of Justice to enforce the laws of the United States, and the previous issuance of guidance undermines the rule of law and the ability of our local, state, tribal and federal law enforcement partners to carry out this mission", Sessions said in a statement. The Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment now protects state-compliant medical marijuana patients, caregivers and businesses from federal persecution, but it is only in effect until January 19; after that it will be reconsidered by a House-Senate conference committee.

"Attorney General Sessions has made a decision to use the power of the federal government to attack the ability of states to decide their own laws".


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