Crime & Justice

US ends Obama policy that let legal pot flourish

In this file photo, a customer purchases marijuana at Harborside marijuana dispensary, Monday, Jan. 1, 2018, in Oakland, California. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is going after state-legalized marijuana, noting that the drug is still illegal under federal law.
In this file photo, a customer purchases marijuana at Harborside marijuana dispensary, Monday, Jan. 1, 2018, in Oakland, California. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is going after state-legalized marijuana, noting that the drug is still illegal under federal law.
Mathew Sumner/AP

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has rescinded an Obama-era policy that allowed legal marijuana to flourish in states across the country.

In a memo Thursday, Sessions says federal prosecutors should decide on their own whether to devote resources to marijuana cases based on other demands in their districts. Sessions writes in the one-page memo that "prosecutors should follow the well-established principles that govern all federal prosecutions" by considering the seriousness of the crime and its impact on the community.

It is not immediately clear how the decision will impact sales of the drug, which are legal on the state level in California, seven other states and Washington, D.C.

But, as Sessions notes in the memo, marijuana remains federally illegal. Justice Department officials say they could take further action against states that have legalized pot but stopped short of offering specifics.

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."

A Republican senator from Colorado, one of the states that have legalized recreational marijuana, reacted angrily to Sessions' memo.

The Justice Department "has trampled on the will of the voters" in Colorado and other states, Sen. Cory Gardner tweeted.

He said ending the previous policy contradicts what Sessions had told him before the attorney general was confirmed.

Gardner said he was prepared "to take all steps necessary," including holding up the confirmation of Justice Department nominees, "until the Attorney General lives up to the commitment he made to me prior to his confirmation."

Colorado's U.S. attorney, Bob Troyer, said his office won't change its approach to prosecution, despite Sessions' guidance. Prosecutors there have always focused on marijuana crimes that "create the greatest safety threats" and will continue to be guided by that, Troyer said.

Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, another Republican senator from a state that legalized recreational pot, called the announcement "disruptive" and "regrettable."

Asked about the change, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said only that President 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."

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 Jan. 1 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.

Sessions 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.

Sessions "wants to maintain a system that has led to tremendous injustice ... and that has wasted federal resources on a huge scale," said Maria McFarland Sanchez-Moreno, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "If Sessions thinks that makes sense in terms of prosecutorial priorities, he is in a very bizarre ideological state, or a deeply problematic one."

But the decision was a win for marijuana opponents who had been urging Sessions to take action.

"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," said Kevin Sabet, president and CEO of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, who was among several anti-marijuana advocates who met with Sessions last month. "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."

Attorney General Jeff Sessions' memo on marijuana enforcement

This story has been updated.