Attorney General Jeff Sessions has kicked over a beehive with his decision to let federal prosecutors get tough on the marijuana trade, even in states where voters had legalized the substance.
Sessions on Thursday sent a memo to U.S. attorneys announcing “a return to the (federal) rule of law” that still prohibits the sale and use of marijuana, and the rescission of Obama administration policies that advised prosecutors against taking action on weed violations in states where voters had OK’ed its use.
“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 local, state, tribal and federal law enforcement partners to carry out this mission,” Sessions said.
"Therefore, 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."
The decision, announced days after a new California law allowed recreational use in what’s expected to be the biggest state market for the drug, incensed lawmakers from states where pot sales were already legalized.
Republican Sen. Cory Gardner from Colorado, which legalized recreation use in 2012, said the Attorney General’s action “directly contradicts” what Sessions said prior to his confirmation.
“With no prior notice to Congress, the Justice Department has trampled on the will of the voters in Colorado and other states," Gardner tweeted. "I am 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."
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, also a Republican, said Sessions’ plan will be “disruptive to state regulatory regimes.”
“Over the past year I repeatedly discouraged Attorney General Sessions from taking this action and asked that he work with the states and Congress if he feels changes are necessary,” Murkowski said, calling today’s announcement “regrettable.”
Democratic Representative Earl Blumenauer from Oregon, another state that has legalized marijuana, called Session’s announcement “outrageous.”
“Going against the majority of Americans — including a majority of Republican voters —who want the federal government to stay out of the way is perhaps one of the stupidest decisions the Attorney General has made,” Blumenauer, who co-chairs the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, said in a statement. “It’s time for anyone who cares about this issue to mobilize and push back strongly against this decision.”
Indeed, a Gallup poll released in October found that almost two thirds of Americans – 64 percent – believe marijuana use should be legal, the highest level of public support behind that proposal in nearly a half century of measurement. The figure has climbed from just 12 percent in 1969.
Sessions’ new policy could put a brake on the growth of the marijuana sales in the U.S. which GreenWave Advisors, had said could reach $14.5 billion this year, including local sales taxes.
California on Jan. 1 joined Alaska, Colorado, Washington, Nevada, Oregon and Washington, D.C., in allowing cannabis sales to people over 21. In addition, Maine and Massachusetts allow adults to legally grow and possess the drug. A score of other states have legalized cannabis for medical uses.
While President Trump has said in the past that he believes legalization of marijuana is a state issue, Sessions, a former senator from Alabama, has compared the drug to heroin and said it can lead to violent behavior.
Marijuana advocates disagree:
“Jeff Sessions is acting on his warped desire to return America to the failed beliefs of the ‘Just Say No’ and ‘Reefer Madness’ eras,” Erik Altieri, the executive director of the pro-marijuana group NORML, said in a blog post. “This action flies in the face of sensible public policy and broad public opinion.”