The Justice Department is rescinding critical rules directing the federal government to keep its hands off of states' legal marijuana

jeff sessions

Reuters/Aaron Bernstein

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions testifies before a House Judiciary Committee hearing on oversight of the Justice Department on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., November 14, 2017.

  • Attorney General Jeff Sessions will rescind the Obama-era policy that directs the federal government to avoid prosecuting state-legalized marijuana.
  • The policy, known as the Cole Memo, lays out enforcement priorities for the federal government, with a focus on limiting supply to the black market and keeping marijuana out of minors' hands.
  • The policy allows individual states to decide whether to enforce federal law.

WASHINGTON (AP) - Attorney General Jeff Sessions is rescinding the Obama-era policy that had paved the way for legalized marijuana to flourish in states across the country, two people with knowledge of the decision told The Associated Press. Sessions will instead let federal prosecutors decide how aggressively to enforce federal marijuana laws in states where pot has become legal, the people said.

Those familiar with the plan spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it before an announcement, which is expected Thursday. Sessions, a longtime opponent of marijuana, has hinted at initiating a federal crack down on state-legal marijuana businesses for the better part of a year.

The move by President Donald Trump's attorney general likely will add to confusion about whether it's alright to grow, buy, or use marijuana in states where pot is legal, since long-standing federal law prohibits it. While marijuana continues to be illegal at the federal level, a number of states have voted to legalize and regulate the recreational market in recent years.

The news of Sessions' plan comes just days after pot shops opened in California, launching what is expected to become the world's largest market for legal recreational marijuana. A majority of Americans support federal marijuana legalization, according to a recent Gallup poll.

Sessions is rescinding the Cole Memorandum, a 2013 directive from the Obama administration that stipulates that the Justice Department place "low priority" on enforcing marijuana laws against businesses and organizations that comply with state law. The memo stipulates that the federal government 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 out of the hands of criminal gangs and children.

Sessions' policy will let U.S. attorneys across the country decide what kinds of federal resources to devote to marijuana enforcement based on what they see as priorities in their districts, the people familiar with the decision said.

FILE PHOTO: Marijuana plants for sale are displayed at the California Heritage Market in Los Angeles, California July 11, 2014. REUTERS/David McNew

Thomson Reuters

Marijuana plants for sale are displayed at the medical marijuana farmers market in Los Angeles

Sessions has previously said that he's not a fan of the "expanded use" of marijuana, and has assailed the drug as comparable to heroin and blamed it for spikes in violence. The Trump administration has previously suggested it might crack down on state-legal marijuana enterprises. Trump spoke in support of medical marijuana during the 2016 campaign, though he has remained silent on the issue in recent months.

Pot advocates argue that legalizing the drug eliminates the need for a black market and would likely reduce violence, since criminals would no longer control the marijuana trade.

Eight states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for recreational use, and California's sales alone are projected to bring in $1 billion annually in tax revenue within several years. The pot business has already started to become a sophisticated, multimillion-dollar industry whose tax dollars help fund schools, educational programs, and law enforcement.

Sen. Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican, lashed out at Sessions' move on Twitter on Thursday.

"With no prior notice to Congress, the Justice Department has trampled on the will of the voters in CO and other states," Gardner said.

Gardner added that Sessions' action "directly contradicts" what he told Gardner prior to his confirmation. Gardner voted to confirm Sessions last year.

"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," Gardner said.

cannabis weed marijuana


An employee checks cannabis plants at a medical marijuana plantation in northern Israel March 21, 2017.

Sessions and some law enforcement officials in states such as Colorado blame legalization for a number of problems, including drug traffickers that take advantage of lax marijuana laws to illegally grow and ship the drug across state lines, where it can sell for much more.

Sessions' decision was a win for pot opponents who had been urging 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."

Threats of a federal crackdown have united liberals who object to the human costs of a war on pot with conservatives who see it as a states' rights issue. Some in law enforcement support a tougher approach, but a bipartisan group of senators in March urged Sessions to uphold existing marijuana policy. Others in Congress have been seeking ways to protect and promote legal cannabis businesses.

Sessions convened a task force to study pot policy, but the group made no recommendations for upending the legal industry. Instead, it encouraged Justice Department officials to keep reviewing the Obama administration's more hands-off approach to enforcement, something Sessions has promised to do since he took office.

The change represents yet another way that Sessions, who served as a federal prosecutor at the height of the drug war in Mobile, Alabama, has reversed Obama-era criminal justice policies aimed at easing overcrowding in federal prisons and rethinking of how drug criminals are prosecuted and sentenced. While his Democratic predecessor Eric Holder told federal prosecutors to avoid seeking long mandatory minimum sentences when charging some lower-level drug offenders, for example, Sessions issued an order demanding the opposite, telling them to pursue the most serious charges possible against most suspects.

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