U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced recently that federal prosecutors don't have the resources to focus on minor marijuana violations such as possession, although the cases could still be prosecuted under state law. This adds a bit of clarity to federal marijuana policy after Sessions reversed an Obama-era policy that had urged U.S. attorneys to avoid such cases.
"I am not going to tell Colorado or California or someone else that possession of marijuana is legal under United States law," Sessions said on March 10 at Georgetown Law School. But, he said, federal prosecutors "haven't been working small marijuana cases before, they are not going to be working them now."
Instead, U.S. attorneys will focus on more troubling marijuana crimes such as gang-related distribution and grow operations on federal land. They may also crack down on illegal marijuana cultivation and trade within states where cannabis is legal but regulated.
Will the Justice Department crack down on compliant operations in legalization states?
In January, Sessions withdrew another Obama-era policy that protected marijuana activity that complied with state law. The Cole memo directed federal prosecutors to place a low priority on prosecuting federal marijuana crimes in opposition to state laws.
Sessions then issued a new policy, which told U.S. attorneys to follow "well established principles" of law enforcement, such as following the attorney general's law enforcement priorities. As we discussed at the time, Sessions' belief that marijuana crimes should be vigorously prosecuted is widely known.
When asked whether federal prosecutors will target state-sanctioned marijuana businesses for prosecution, Sessions said, "Those are the kinds of things each one of those U.S. attorneys will decide how to handle."
Marijuana is now legal for recreational purposes in eight states, according to the Associated Press, and for medical use in over half of U.S. states. The District of Columbia and other cities have decriminalized the drug. Even Wisconsin allows medical CBD oil, a non-psychoactive cannabis derivative. These laws affect millions of people, and they deserve to know whether relying on local or state legalization will backfire on them.
It's good to hear that resource limitations will keep federal prosecutors from focusing on low-level users. It would be better if Sessions would make the policies of the Justice Department clear.