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Jeff Sessions will allow the federal government to prosecute cannabis in states where it is legal


Updated January 04, 2018 03:10 PM EST

The Department of Justice rolled back Obama-era barriers limiting the power of the federal government to prosecute cannabis usage in states that have legalized marijuana for recreational purposes.

In a memo written by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Department urged U.S. Attorneys to disregard previous memos issued by the DOJ during the Obama administration that led to a more "hands-off" approach by the federal government in prosecuting marijuana crimes.

The most well-known of these Obama-era memos was the Cole Memorandum, which limited the DOJ's purview of prosecution to infractions like distribution of marijuana to minors and gang-related sales. Since 2013, under the guidance of that memo, the federal government has undertaken a "hands-off" policy toward each state that has legalized and regulated recreational marijuana. But today's new directive instructs department employees to disregard the Cole Memo.

"Given the Department's well-established general principles," read today's memo, "previous nationwide guidance specific to marijuana enforcement is unnecessary and is rescinded, effective immediately."

“Its as important to read the one page memo for what it doesnt do as for what it does,” explains Portland, Oregon-based lawyer Perry Salzhauer. "What it does not do is issue and specific policy directives."

Read the full memo here, then read the full story below:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has decided that the Department of Justice (DOJ) will roll back Obama-era barriers limiting the power of the federal government to prosecute cannabis usage in states that have legalized marijuana for recreational purposes.

The decision comes on the fourth day of legal recreational cannabis use in California, which many project will become the world's largest cannabis market, and just weeks after Maryland began selling medical marijuana. 26 states have legalized the use of medical marijuana, and eight states - and the District of Columbia - have legalized recreational marijuana use. Cannabis, though, is federally illegal and classified as a Section I drug, putting it in the same category as heroin.

This latest move by President Trump’s attorney general will likely add to confusion about whether it’s OK to grow, buy or use marijuana in states where pot is legal, since long-standing federal law prohibits it.

The policies specifically targeted by Attorney General Sessions are outlined in the "Cole Memorandum," written by then-Deputy Attorney General James Cole in 2013. The memo 'focused priorities' on prosecuting infractions both states and the federal government could agree on, like distribution of marijuana to minors, gang-related marijuana sales and cases of marijuana crossing state lines. The memo has since kept the federal government from interfering to any great extent with state cannabis regulations.

This is not the first rollback of Obama-era marijuana policies that the Attorney General has overseen since being appointed. In March, the DOJ issued a memo instructing prosecutors to seek the maximum penalty for drug offenses, U-turning on the Obama-era policy of taking a more lenient stance on prosecuting marijuana possession and minor pot-related infractions.

While the Cole Memo is now defunct, Sessions' new memo does not give U.S. Attorneys across the nation any new guidelines of what or how to prosecute cannabis and marijuana.

“You really have to look at the individual US Attorney in each state,” explained Portland, Oregon-based lawyer Perry Salzhauer. Salzhauer, a partner at Greenlight Law Group, a law firm that specializes in cannabis, points out that many U.S. Attorneys have political aspirations themselves.

"It doesn’t make sense that they would buck public sentiment by going after marijuana.”

A Gallup poll conducted last October showed that 64 percent of Americans support legalization of marijuana, including 51 percent of Republicans.

"This move by the Attorney General will prove not just to be a disaster from a policy perspective, but from a political one," said Erik Altieri, Executive Director of NORML, in a press release. "Ending our disgraceful war on marijuana is the will of the people and the Trump Administration can expect severe backlash for opposing it."

In Colorado, U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer, who was appointed by Jeff Sessions in October, issued a statement regarding the new memo.

"Today the Attorney General... directed that federal marijuana prosecution decisions be governed by the same principles that have long governed all of our prosecution decisions," Troyer wrote. "The United States Attorney's Office in Colorado has already been guided by these principles in marijuana prosecutions - focusing in particular on those who create the greatest safety threats to our communities around the state."

The most immediate impact mentioned by both lawyers and growers alike, however, is investment. Immediately after news broke that the DOJ may increase scrutiny of marijuana businesses in states with legal markets, pot stocks took a plunge.

“One short term effect we’ll see is a chilling effect on investment," said Portland lawyer Salzhauer. "And how long that lasts is about what happens next.”

Chris Van Hook, a cannabis compliance lawyer and owner of Clean Green Certified a cannabis certification program that closely follows USDA Organic certification guidelines, hopes that the next step will be congressional involvement.

"There’s 26 governors that are pushing it," Van Hook said over the phone. "That means there’s 52 senators."

And many of those senators - on both sides of the aisle - attacked Session's new guidance today in statements via email and on Twitter.

"This reported action directly contradicts what Attorney General Sessions told me prior to his confirmation," Republican Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado tweeted this morning, adding that he is "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.

Sen. Gardner's state - Colorado - is one of eight states that have a legal recreational marijuana market. It surpassed over $1 billion in revenue in 2017, and a 2016 study showed that the industry created over 18,000 new jobs in Colorado in 2015.

Meanwhile, in California - soon to be the largest cannabis market in the world - Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) tweeted "AG Jeff Sessions apparently wants to take America back to the 1920s."

"Congress needs to pass sensible laws to prevent a monumental waste of precious federal resources chasing Americans who use #cannabis," he added.

While Sessions has been carrying out a Justice Department agenda that follows Trump’s top priorities on such issues as immigration and opioids, the changes to pot policy reflect his own concerns. Trump’s personal views on marijuana remain largely unknown.

Additional reporting by Kellan Howell. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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