Confusion Abounds After Sessions' Big Marijuana Move

Announced he'll rescind policy that had let legalized marijuana flourish
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jan 4, 2018 8:15 AM CST
Updated Jan 4, 2018 12:33 PM CST
Report: Sessions Is Going After Legal Pot Today
Attorney General Jeff Sessions pauses as he speaks during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington, Friday, Dec. 15, 2017, about efforts to reduce violent crime.   (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

The AP on Thursday morning reported Attorney General Jeff Sessions was going to go after legalized marijuana, and so it came to pass. Sessions says he is rescinding a policy instituted under President Obama that had allowed legalized marijuana to flourish in six states, with more considering the move. While the drug is illegal at the federal level, Politico reports the Obama-era guidelines "effectively limited prosecutions" of entities who sold pot in accordance with their own state law. As for whether those prosecutions will now surge, who knows? "I can't sit here and say whether it will or will not lead to more marijuana prosecutions," one Justice Department official tells Politico, which notes the announcement seemed to be "deliberately vague" about its own impact. In a memo, Sessions noted that federal prosecutors should decide on their own whether to devote resources to marijuana cases based on other demands in their districts, per the AP. Read on for more on the move and one senator's very vocal pushback.

  • A quote from Sessions: "Given the Department's well-established general principles, previous nationwide guidance specific to marijuana enforcement is unnecessary and is rescinded, effective immediately."
  • The memo: USA Today reports Sessions' one-page memo will be delivered to the nation's federal prosecutors, and DOJ officials tell the paper that the previous "de-facto safe haven" for states is no more. "This memo has no de-facto safe haven in it." But the memo also has no specifics regarding enforcement.
  • Background: Marijuana Moment provides background and a timeline: The 2013 "Cole Memo" gave states a sort of playbook on how to enact their own marijuana laws without federal intervention, by detailing criteria on things like driving while high and interstate trafficking. (As USA Today puts, it, the memo "effectively discouraged the pursuit of non-violent marijuana users who have no links to criminal gangs or cartel[s].") In April, a Justice Department task force was instructed by Sessions to review the memo and offer any suggestions on policy changes. In November, Sessions confirmed the memo remained in effect in comments to Congress, but did reference the DOJ review.
  • Timing: The decision comes days after California began selling recreational marijuana, though Politico says the timing of Sessions' announcement is thought to be coincidental.

  • Pushback: Republican Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado—where recreational pot has been legal since 2012—was quick to swing at Sessions on Twitter. "This reported action directly contradicts what Attorney General Sessions told me prior to his confirmation. With no prior notice to Congress, the Justice Department has trampled on the will of the voters in CO and other states," he tweeted, vowing in a subsequent tweet to "take all steps necessary, including holding DOJ nominees, until the Attorney General lives up to the commitment he made to me."
  • Sessions' stance: Sessions has compared marijuana to heroin and blamed it for spikes in violence. In a December 2016 piece titled "Jeff Sessions' Coming War on Legal Marijuana," Politico rounded up some of Sessions more colorful quotes on the topic, including him saying in the 1980s that he thought the KKK "were OK until I found out they smoked pot," and, in April 2016, "Good people don't smoke marijuana."
  • The president's stance: The Washington Post surfaces a 2016 interview in which Donald Trump was asked whether it would be appropriate for the feds to halt the sale of legal pot. "I wouldn't do that, no," was his reply, but the Post characterizes him as being "noncommittal" when asked whether he would intervene if his attorney general tried to do so.
  • The immediate impact: Confusion, predicts the New York Times, and perhaps a dry-up in major investment.
  • So can Congress do anything? Yes, the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance tells Rolling Stone. "It's up to Congress to act quickly to limit DOJ's authority to act against states that have legalized marijuana, as they did with the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment," she says. Rolling Stone explains the amendment she references has been tacked on to spending bills since 2014 and bars the DOJ from using federal money to pursue cases against medical marijuana programs legalized by the states.
(More marijuana legalization stories.)

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