Top pols move cautiously on marijuana

Seek more clarification from US Attorney

STATE LEADERS, most of whom opposed the legalization of marijuana, appear to be taking a wait-and-see approach to US Attorney Andrew Lelling’s announcement that pot cultivation, distribution, and possession are all crimes under federal law that he is sworn to enforce.

Gov. Charlie Baker, Attorney General Maura Healey, and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh indicated on Tuesday that they want to talk to Lelling to seek additional clarification about his enforcement plans. Until then, they indicated, they are proceeding as if marijuana legalization will go ahead as scheduled this summer in Massachusetts.

All three political leaders were strong opponents of marijuana legalization before voters approved it in November 2016. Indeed, the three of them wrote an op-ed for the Boston Globe in March 2016 in which they argued that research has debunked the myth that marijuana is harmless. “The science also shows that regular marijuana users — especially those who start at a young age — are more likely to try more dangerous drugs,” they wrote.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh

Despite Lelling’s announcement, Baker has made no move to halt funding for the Cannabis Control Commission, which is setting up the regulatory framework for statewide marijuana legalization. And Walsh indicated his administration is preparing to deal with marijuana retail stores opening in Boston later this year.

The governor said that, when he talks to Lelling, he would urge him to focus his attention elsewhere. “What I would stress to him is the big public health crisis that we’re dealing with in the Commonwealth these days is opioid addiction and street drugs like fentanyl,” Baker said. “He mentioned in his remarks that he has limited resources. I would like to see his limited resources focus on the elements that are killing many people every day here in the Commonwealth, which is fentanyl. Let’s focus on the stuff right now that is wreaking havoc across our Commonwealth, and recognize and understand that the voters of Massachusetts voted to create a legal regulated recreational marijuana market here in the Commonwealth.”

In the statement he issued Monday, his second on the subject, Lelling said he could not provide assurances “that certain categories of participants in the state-level marijuana trade will be immune from prosecution.” He also said he would assess each situation on a case-by-case basis, weighing whether to use limited federal resources to pursue it.

“Deciding in advance to immunize a certain category of actors from federal prosecution would be to effectively amend the laws Congress has already passed, and that I will not do,” Lelling said in his statement. “The kind of categorical relief sought by those engaged in state-level marijuana legalization efforts can only come from the legislative process.”

On December 22, Lelling’s office charged two Massachusetts men with manufacturing large quantities of marijuana and possessing marijuana with intent to distribute it. The two men face charges that could send them to jail for two to five years and slap them with fines of up to $250,000.

Walsh said Lelling’s statement indicated he was hewing to the views of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, an opponent of marijuana legalization who last week revoked an Obama-era policy of looking the other way in states that legalized marijuana. But Walsh said he wanted additional clarification. “I need to find out what can they do and what does it mean,” he said. “It’s unclear right now.”

Walsh said the situation is an awkward one for policymakers. “It’s complicated,” he said. “I didn’t support the law. I didn’t support the ballot initiative. I didn’t support the medical marijuana ballot initiative. But the voters voted pretty overwhelmingly in some areas to bring marijuana legalization to Massachusetts. I think there has to be a separation between federal government and state government. If the voters of Massachusetts said they want legalization of marijuana, I think it’s very complicated to come in and change the rules and say it’s now illegal.”

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

When it was noted that, in the absence of the Obama-era policy, marijuana has always been an illegal drug under federal law, Walsh said he needed more information.

“We’re moving forward,” he said. “We have an office set up to deal with marijuana sales happening in Massachusetts. That’s what we’re going to do. That’s the law of Massachusetts until I hear differently.”

Baker, Walsh, and Healey commented after appearing at a ribbon-cutting on City Hall Plaza for a van that will deliver addiction services in neighborhoods. The program was launched by the Kraft Center for Community Health and Massachusetts General Hospital as well as a number of other funders.