Sessions turns back pot clock

Sessions turns back pot clock

AG rescinds Obama-era guidance allowing states to legalize marijuana

ATTORNEY GENERAL JEFF SESSIONS has thrown the emerging legal marijuana industry into turmoil by rescinding an Obama-era memorandum that ordered the Justice Department to ignore enforcing federal drug laws in states that allowed adult use.

Sessions, a longtime opponent of legalizing marijuana who often tied it to the opioid crisis, issued a new guidance that will allow US attorneys in each state to decide how much effort and resources to put into making arrests and prosecution of people violating federal, but not state, controlled substance laws. But his memo and statements also make it clear that federal statutes trump local laws.

“It is the mission of the Department of Justice to enforce the laws of the United States, and 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 said in a statement. “Therefore, today’s memo on federal marijuana enforcement simply 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.”

In 2014, the Justice Department, under then-President Obama, issued the so-called Cole Memorandum, named for the assistant attorney general, James Cole, who authored it. The memo, in essence, ordered federal law enforcement officials and prosecutors to redirect their efforts to other drug crimes in states that opt to legalize medical and recreational marijuana as long as it didn’t seep into states where it was illegal or compromise other laws.

The guidance also cleared the way for some banks, uneasy over violating federal drug laws, to handle accounts for and loan money to legal marijuana sellers without fear of prosecution. The new regulations now could put a chill on that and force retailers to return to doing business with only cash.

In Massachusetts, which is on the cusp of approving regulations and allowing the sale and use of marijuana, officials condemned the change in tack and vowed to move forward with implementing the voter-approved law.

The Cannabis Control Commission, which just issued its draft regulations for retail marijuana cultivation and sale, issued a statement saying “nothing has changed” in the members’ view.

“Our priority has always been to protect public safety and develop regulations that are compliant with all laws including those passed by the voters and the Legislature legalizing the recreational use of marijuana in the Commonwealth,” says the statement. “As far as the mandate and the work of the Cannabis Control Commission is concerned, nothing has changed. We will continue to move forward with our process to establish and implement sensible regulations for this emerging industry in Massachusetts.​

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, who opposed the 2016 referendum, said in a statement she will protect the voters’ decision as well as the marijuana panel’s mission.

“Today’s announcement from Washington inexplicably directs federal law enforcement resources away from combatting an opioid epidemic that is ravaging our communities in order to focus on legalized marijuana,” Healey said. “The people of Massachusetts have voted to make marijuana legal under state law… My office is committed to assisting the Commission, local municipalities and our partners in law enforcement to implement the will of the voters effectively.”

James Borghesani, who was a spokesman for the Yes on 4 campaign that convinced voters to approve the measure, blasted the redirection of enforcement efforts and expressed hope local prosecutors would continue the former approach.

“It is distressing to see Jeff Sessions making such a regressive move at a time when more and more states—and countries such as Canada—are replacing failed cannabis prohibition policies with smart, regulated approaches,” Borghesani said. “However, the true test will be how individual US attorneys move forward in a post-Cole Memorandum environment.  My hope is that they recognize and respect decisions by voters in legal states.”

Gov. Charlie Baker, who also opposed the ballot question, said he was disappointed in the memo but a spokesman stopped short of saying the governor would defy Sessions.

“The Baker-Polito Administration fully supports the will of the voters and the CCC’s mission,” spokesman Brendan Moss said in an emailed statement. “The administration believes this is the wrong decision and will review any potential impacts from any policy changes by the local U.S. Attorney’s Office.”

The memo could disrupt legal marijuana sales not only in the eight states that allow it but also in the 29 states that have approved medical marijuana usage and sales. During the 2016 campaign, President Trump had indicated legalizing marijuana was a matter of states’ rights but Sessions declined to adopt that posture.

A Republican US senator from Colorado, where legal pot has been sold for nearly four years, said Sessions’s memo “contradicts” what the former Alabama senator said prior to his confirmation as attorney general and he vowed to block Trump nominees until the new enforcement is voided.

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

Meet the Author

Jack Sullivan

Senior Investigative Reporter, CommonWealth

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

Brian Vicente, who co-authored the Colorado initiative to legalize marijuana and whose law firm, Vicente Sederberg LLC, is one of the leading firms representing the industry and has an office in Boston, said the Sessions memo reverses many of the gains in states that showed the legal market can be an economic engine.

“The regulated marijuana market is steadily replacing the criminal market while also creating tens of thousands of jobs and pumping hundreds of millions of dollars of tax revenue into state economies,” Vicente said in a statement. “It would be incredibly counterproductive for the federal government to roll back this progress and hand the marijuana industry back over to cartels and criminals. States like Colorado and Washington have demonstrated that regulating marijuana works.”