This week's decision by the Trump administration to free federal prosecutors to more aggressively enforce marijuana laws — even in states that have legalized pot use — will throw a speed bump or two in the way of the pot industry's rapid growth.
But make no mistake: Despite Thursday's announcement from Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the rising tide for legalization, for better or for worse, eventually will carry the day across the United States.
Sessions on Thursday rescinded an Obama-era policy that had discouraged federal prosecutors from pursuing some pot-related cases in states that had legalized the drug, either for medicinal or recreational uses. Under the policy laid out in a memo from a Justice Department official named James Cole, federal prosecutors were told to ease off on cases involving marijuana use in those states, except when certain factors were in play, such as sales to children, gang-related activity or cases in which pot was being shipped to states where it remains illegal. (The latter, by the way, appears to be the case in Oregon.)
The idea was to allow those states a bit of room to experiment with legalizing marijuana, which remains illegal under federal law. (In fact, federal law still classifies pot as among the most dangerous of all drugs, a ludicrous designation.)
But since the so-called Cole memo didn't have the force of law, it was vulnerable to being jettisoned by any new administration. President Donald Trump didn't spend much time talking about marijuana during his campaign, and it remains unclear what the president thinks about legalization.
But Trump did pick Sessions, a longtime foe of legalization, to be his attorney general, and from the start of his tenure, Sessions was making noises about taking another look at the Cole memo. Supporters of legalization must have hoped that Sessions had forgotten about the whole matter (after all, his memory seemed to be hazy during a recent appearance before a congressional committee looking into another matter), but the shoe finally dropped on Thursday — not coincidentally, just days after California legalized the use of recreational pot, creating what is almost certainly the world's largest market for marijuana.
Sessions said in a statement: “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."
Justice Department officials on Thursday refused to say whether the goal was to crack down on dispensaries, or whether to just sow confusion to stall the growth of the marijuana industry. It could be that the administration doesn't yet know what its strategy is. Or it could be that the Justice Department intends to leave decisions about prosecutions in the hands of its U.S. attorneys.
To that end, Billy Williams, the U.S. attorney for Oregon, was saying all the right things on Thursday about how his office planned to proceed: "We will continue working with our federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement partners to pursue shared public safety objectives, with an emphasis on stemming the overproduction of marijuana and the diversion of marijuana out of state," he said in a statement. In other words, the feds in Oregon will be targeting the same sort of criminal activities that they were monitoring under the terms of the Cole memo.
That strikes us as a wise approach — but it is unclear whether it will pass muster with Williams' supervisors in Washington.
This country has spent billions of dollars over the years fighting marijuana, with little to show for the investment. It would be a shame if Thursday's action meant a resumption of that war against pot. Surely federal authorities have more important priorities than resuming a war that they're destined to lose. (mm)