Recently, Congress once again extended a ban on the Department of Justice using its funds to prosecute legitimate medical marijuana operations in states that have legalized the drug for medicinal purposes. However, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has asked lawmakers to end this prohibition and allow his prosecutors to go after medical cannabis.
On May 1, Sessions — an outspoken critic of marijuana — wrote to the leadership of both the House and Senate to voice his opposition to the prosecution ban.
This prohibition has been added on to Congressional appropriations bills for several years, most recently as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2017. In his letter to lawmakers, Sessions asks Congress to omit these riders from any future appropriations bills.
“I believe it would be unwise for Congress to restrict the Department to fund particular prosecutions, particularly in the midst of an historic drug epidemic and potentially long-term uptick in violent crime,” read the letter. “The Department must be in a position to use all laws available to combat the transnational drug organizations and dangerous drug traffickers who threaten American lives.”
The Sessions letter attempts to paint a picture of medical marijuana as being linked to organized crime, citing the example of a Colorado pot operation that allegedly shipped and sold marijuana outside the state. Half of 16 people charged in that case had previously received licenses to operate legal pot businesses in the state.
He also claims a 2016 Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling prohibits the DOJ from prosecuting these sort of bad actors.
However, the Ninth Circuit ruling explicitly allows the DOJ to prosecute cases where suspects “do not strictly comply with all state-law conditions regarding the use, distribution, possession, and cultivation of medical marijuana.” Additionally, the Colorado case he cites in the letter was a joint effort of state law enforcement and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration — a division of the DOJ.
Though President Trump repeatedly claimed during the election campaign that he was in favor of medical marijuana, the issue has become cloudier in the months since his inauguration.
In February, White House spokesman Sean Spicer indicated that the DOJ could be considering a crackdown on legalized pot, likening even medical cannabis to the opioid painkillers at the center of the ongoing nationwide addiction epidemic.
When President Trump signed the 2017 appropriations bill into law, he included a signing statement where he said he will treat the marijuana prosecution “provision consistently with my constitutional responsibility to take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”
While that doesn’t necessarily indicate policy changes, its mere inclusion raised concerns among supporters of medical marijuana that the President may be changing his stance on the issue.
Even if medical marijuana is not targeted by the administration, the small but growing number of states with legalized recreational pot are worried the DOJ may go after retail cannabis operations. Some lawmakers have indicated that they may allow retail marijuana businesses to convert to medical dispensaries if the federal government attempts to crack down.