The Trump administration threw the nation's burgeoning movement to legalize marijuana into uncertainty Thursday, terminating an Obama-era leniency policy that kept federal authorities from cracking down in states that have declared it legal. Prosecutors can now go after the pot trade whenever state and federal drug laws collide, Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared.
Sessions' action, just three days after a legalization law went into effect in California, threatened the future of the young industry, created confusion in states where the drug is legal and outraged both marijuana advocates and some members of Congress, including Sessions' fellow Republicans. Many conservatives are wary of what they see as federal intrusion in areas they believe must be left to the states.
“I think it was a callous, cold, heartless decision by the Attorney General,” Illinois Rep. Louis Lang, the author of the state’s medical marijuana law told NBC 5. “You have the opportunity, and maybe the likelihood, that one U.S. Attorney will interpret the law and enforce it differently than another one.”
In a large state like Illinois with multiple federal jurisdictions, that paints the picture of a confusing and chaotic enforcement scheme.
“The U.S. Attorney for the Central District of Illinois, and the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, could conceivably be doing totally opposite things,” Lang said. “And therefore throw the lives of innocent people into turmoil!”
Republican Sen. Cory Gardner, who represents Colorado, one of eight states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use, said the change contradicts a pledge Sessions made to him before being confirmed as attorney general. Gardner promised to push legislation to protect marijuana sales, saying he was prepared ``to take all steps necessary'' to fight the change, including holding up the confirmation of Justice Department nominees. Another Republican senator, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, called the announcement "disruptive'' and "regrettable.''
The largely hands-off approach to marijuana enforcement set forth by Barack Obama's Justice Department allowed the pot business to flourish into a sophisticated, multimillion-dollar industry that helps fund some state government programs. Last year, the medical marijuana industry took in more than $86 million here in Illinois. The pot businesses have generated more than $123 million since medical marijuana became legal just 25 months ago.
But what happens now is in doubt.
"In deciding which marijuana activities to prosecute under these laws with the Department's finite resources, prosecutors should follow the well-established principles that govern all federal prosecutions,'' considering the seriousness of a crime and its impact on the community, Sessions told prosecutors in a one-page memo.
But not everyone in the Illinois pot business approached today’s announcement with visions of rampant federal crackdowns.
“It is a complicated, nebulous area to begin with,” says Teddy Scott, CEO of Pharmacannis which operates two of the state’s 21 cultivation centers. “It perhaps gave an illusion of clarity, when in fact the clarity was never there.”
Scott, whose company will be operating in five states by year’s end, suggested the new approach at the Justice Department might bring order to what was sometimes a very uncertain scenario.
“One nice thing here in Illinois is that the program is incredibly well regulated,” he said. “I think everybody that is a participant, a stakeholder in this industry, or a caregiver, this is really a wakeup call, that we have to take action and lead and come up with what is the right solution here.”
It is not entirely clear how the change might affect states where marijuana is legal for medical purposes. A congressional amendment blocks the Justice Department from interfering with medical marijuana programs in states where it is allowed. Justice officials said they would follow the law, but would not preclude the possibility of medical-marijuana related prosecutions.
Officials wouldn't say whether federal prosecutors would target marijuana shops and legal growers, nor would they speculate on whether pot prosecutions would increase.
They denied the timing was connected to the opening of California sales, which are projected to bring in $1 billion annually in tax revenue within several years. And, the officials said, Thursday's action might not be the only step toward greater marijuana enforcement. The department has the authority to sue states on the grounds that state laws regulating pot are unconstitutional, pre-empted by federal law.
Asked about the change, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said only that Trump's top priority is enforcing federal law "and that is regardless of what the topic is, whether it's marijuana or whether it's immigration.''
The Obama administration in 2013 announced it would not stand in the way of states that legalize marijuana, so long as officials acted to keep it from migrating to places where it remained outlawed and keep it out of the hands of criminal gangs and children. That memo, written by then-Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole, had cleared up some of the uncertainty about how the federal government would respond as states began allowing sales for recreational and medical purposes.
But the Sessions Justice Department believed the Cole memo created a "safe harbor'' for marijuana by allowing states to flout federal law, Justice Department officials said. Sessions, in his memo, called the Obama guidance "unnecessary.''
He and some law enforcement officials in states such as Colorado blame legalization for a number of problems, including drug traffickers who have taken advantage to illegally grow and ship the drug across state lines, where it can sell for much more.
Marijuana advocates argue those concerns are overblown and contend legalizing the drug reduces crime by eliminating the need for a black market. They quickly condemned Sessions' move as a return to outdated drug-war policies that unduly affected minorities.