Justice Department to End Obama Era Marijuana Policies That Allow States to Legalize Pot

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The Department of Justice, under the guidance of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has instructed U.S. attorneys to begin strict enforcement of federal laws regulating marijuana. The news has caught many off guard, as the mandate applies to all 50 states, even the states where marijuana is legal.

This move reverses an Obama administration policy that, in effect, protected growers, distributors, and users in states where pot is now legal.

“The previous issuance of guidance undermines the rule of law and the ability of our local, state, tribal, and federal law enforcement partners to carry out this mission,” Sessions wrote in his memo.

The move 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.”

Growing, distributing, and using marijuana for recreational purposes is prohibited by federal law. It is unclear how the new ruling will be enacted.

The move is meeting resistance from lawmakers in states that have legalized marijuana.

“[T]he Sessions memo drew immediate condemnation from Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican whose state legalized pot in 2014. He threatened to retaliate by holding up confirmation of Sessions’ picks for top DOJ positions,” NBC notes.

The Obama era policy, enacted in 2013, kept up pressure on the sale of pot to minors, and sought to keep people from growing on federal land.

The move comes the same week California begins selling legal marijuana. The industry in California is expected to be the largest in the nation, and many fear that the overwhelming number of growers would enable the illegal trade in states that still view sales and usage as crimes.

“Jeff Sessions’ obsession with marijuana prohibition defies logic, threatens successful state-level reforms, and flies in the face of widespread public support for legalization,” executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno told NBC. “It’s now time for Congress to put the brakes on Sessions’ destructive agenda by limiting the Justice Department’s ability to undermine states’ decision-making.”

“This will no doubt spike arrests and fuel mass incarceration, largely for people of color, but this administration has been clear from their campaign promises of harsh policies that trample rights that this day would eventually come to pass,” Jasmine Taylor of Human Rights Watch said. “The war on drugs, whether it went away or just slowed down, is now back.”

The move will likely be settled in a prolonged series of legal battle. That prospect, though, hasn’t dampened the enthusiasm of those who oppose recreational marijuana usage.

Anti-marijuana activist Kevin Sabet shared his views, too, calling this “a good day for public health.”

“The days of safe harbor for multi-million dollar pot investments are over.” Sabet is a former Obama Administration drug policy adviser. He now leads Smart Approaches to Marijuana. “DOJ’s move will slow down the rise of Big Marijuana and stop the massive infusion of money going to fund pot candies, cookies, ice creams, and other kid-friendly pot edibles. Investor, banker, funder beware.”