Attorney General Jeff Sessions wanted to make state-legal weed businesses paranoid, but they’re mostly chill for now.
WASHINGTON ― The marijuana industry and its advocates collectively held their breath this week following the release of new Justice Department guidance that gave federal prosecutors the go-ahead to aggressively pursue state-legal marijuana operations. But just a day after the decision, many experts are cautiously optimistic that their initial fears of a crackdown were overblown.
In an announcement Thursday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions officially reversed a set of Obama-era memos that had advised federal prosecutors in legal weed states to de-prioritize marijuana cases. Although the new guidance gives significant authority to U.S. attorneys in the eight states that have already legalized marijuana, the practical effect of the decision will ultimately depend on how they exercise it ― if they do at all.
“The rescission of the [memos] doesn’t affect the industry at all. What affects the industry is when DEA agents start kicking down doors and U.S. attorneys begin prosecuting people,” said marijuana expert John Hudak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy think tank.
And there’s little reason to believe federal authorities will take Sessions up on the invitation to reignite the war on state-legal marijuana, said Patrick Moen, a former Drug Enforcement Administration official who now serves as general counsel for Privateer Holdings, a private equity firm that invests in marijuana companies.
“I still keep in touch with a lot of my former colleagues, and they are almost universally uninterested in maintaining cannabis prohibition,” Moen said. “The majority of U.S. attorneys feel similarly.”
Senior Justice Department officials who briefed reporters on the policy change on Thursday faced a barrage of questions about the Sessions memo. They struggled to articulate the message they intended to send to the marijuana industry, with one simply stating the obvious fact that “marijuana continues to be against federal law.”
In states where marijuana use is legal, the Sessions memo left people scrambling to ascertain the views of their local U.S. attorney, the top federal prosecutor in each of the nation’s 94 federal districts. The attorneys who spoke out gave little indication that the new guidance would change the status quo, which industry officials took as a positive sign. In many cases, federal prosecutors signaled that they would proceed as they had under Obama-era policy by focusing on issues of marijuana distribution to children, the diversion of marijuana to other states, violence and use of firearms, and using state-authorized marijuana operations as a cover for illegal trafficking.
Take a statement issued by Adam Braverman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of California. He wrote that the Sessions memo “returns trust and local control to federal prosecutors” and allows DOJ to enforce the laws enacted by Congress, and Braverman noted that marijuana “cultivation, distribution, and possession” has long been against federal law. But his statement also acknowledged cold reality: His office can’t take on everything and would “continue to utilize long-established prosecutorial priorities to carry out our mission to combat violent crime, disrupt and dismantle transnational criminal organizations, and stem the rising tide of the drug crisis.” (U.S. attorneys for California’s other three districts have not yet weighed in.)
In Oregon, U.S. Attorney Billy J. Williams said his office would continue to place an emphasis on “stemming the overproduction of marijuana and the diversion of marijuana out of state, dismantling criminal organizations and thwarting violent crime in our communities.”