Attorney General Jeff Sessions is scrapping Obama-era guidelines that essentially removed marijuana from the list of federal drug enforcement priorities as more states moved to legalize the drug.
In guidance issued Thursday, Sessions rescinded those policies and instead will permit individual U.S. attorneys to decide how aggressively to go after marijuana in their jurisdictions.
Sessions, a former Alabama senator, has long viewed pot as a public menace and a source of street crime.
Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, but eight states, including California and Colorado, as well as Washington, DC have legalized the drug. Twenty-eight states permit some form of medical marijuana usage.
It was not immediately clear what effect the attorney general’s decision would have in those states or on the increasingly sophisticated and lucrative legal pot industry.
Senior Justice Department officials asked about the potential impact declined to answer. They also declined to specify what message the attorney general is sending to the industry.
“Marijuana continues to be against federal law,” said one Justice official, who spoke on the condition of not being identified.
The potential political fallout may be clearer: Sen. Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican, threatened to hold up Trump administration appointees unless Sessions reverses course.
“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,” Gardner wrote on Twitter.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat and co-chairman of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, called Sessions’ decision “outrageous.”
” Going against the majority of Americans — including a majority of Republican voters — who want the federal government to stay out of the way is perhaps one of the stupidest decisions the Attorney General has made,” Blumenauer said in a statement.
“One wonders if Trump was consulted—it is Jeff Sessions after all—because this would violate his campaign promise not to interfere with state marijuana laws.”
Trump had said that he would respect state voters’ rights in places that have elected to modify their drug laws.
Advocacy groups said the Sessions revisions not only flouted local democracy but amounts to bad public policy.
“Jeff Sessions’ obsession with marijuana prohibition defies logic, threatens successful state-level reforms, and flies in the face of widespread public support for legalization,” said Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a drug reform advocacy group.
Supporters, however — such as Kevin A. Sabet of the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana — said the department is “protecting public health and safety” with its new guidelines.
“While the memo does not authorize going after individual users, it likely will dry up support from financial institutions and investors. Without that support, it’s hard to see how the industry keeps growing,” Sabet said.