Jeff Sessions Struggles To Get Planned Marijuana Crackdown Going

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Photo Credit: Andrew Harrer

Attorney General Jeff Sessions vowed to use federal law to get tough on marijuana, announcing in January he was ending Obama-era protections for the nascent pot industry in states where it is legal. Six months into his mission, he is largely going it alone.

Mr. Sessions’ own prosecutors have yet to bring federal charges against pot businesses that are abiding by state law. And fellow Republicans in Congress, with support from President Donald Trump, are promoting several bills that would protect or even expand the legal pot trade.

As a result, Mr. Sessions, an unabashed drug warrior, has struggled to make his anti-marijuana agenda a reality, a notable contrast with the success he has had in toughening law-and-order policies in other criminal justice areas.

Marijuana advocates say Mr. Sessions’ approach, in seeking to spur a crackdown on the legal marijuana market, has largely backfired. It has catalyzed bipartisan support for research, they say, and for action to improve the young industry’s access to banks, which have been generally unwilling to accept proceeds from pot sales.

Underlining the pushback, Sen. Cory Gardner, (R., Colo.) on Thursday joined Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) in introducing a bill that essentially would allow states to pass their own marijuana laws without interference from the federal government.

Mr. Trump on Friday reiterated his support for Mr. Gardner, saying “I know exactly what he’s doing, we’re looking at it, but I probably will end up supporting that, yes.”

The dynamic highlights the unusual state of the nation’s marijuana laws. More states are legalizing marijuana use for medical or even recreational purposes as many parts of society take a more tolerant view of pot, creating a cadre of supporters from both parties. Yet the drug remains illegal under federal law, posing a challenge for U.S. officials in deciding how to pursue it.

President Barack Obama’s administration took a largely hands-off approach to states that had legalized marijuana. Mr. Sessions initially showed determination to overhaul those policies, blaming marijuana for helping fuel the opioid abuse crisis and for causing spikes in violence.

The Justice Department declined to comment. Mr. Sessions, however, recently told members of Congress that the department is now emphasizing the pursuit of more dangerous drugs.

Pressed on marijuana enforcement at a hearing, he said, “I have felt it not appropriate for me to somehow give a safe harbor or protection to areas around the country where it still remains a violation of federal law.” But he added, “The threats that we’re focused on in the Department of Justice are fentanyl, heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, prescription abuses in large amounts [that] lead to addiction and death. Those are clearly where we’re moving.”

In an unusual move by a Republican senator against his own party’s attorney general, Mr. Gardner blocked nominees for Justice Department jobs after Mr. Sessions announced he was undoing the Obama administration’s approach.

Mr. Gardner stood down after receiving assurances that Mr. Trump would support protections for pot-legal states like Colorado, essentially undermining Mr. Sessions on the issue. “If they’ve voted to have a legal industry, then it would allow them to continue forward without violating any federal law,” Mr. Gardner said of the bill he co-authored with Ms. Warren.

House Republicans are also supporting a number of other marijuana-related measures. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R., Fla.) is pushing his colleagues to allow more marijuana research, which he hopes will pave the way to rescheduling pot—that is, categorizing it with less dangerous drugs on the Drug Enforcement Administration’s list of illicit substances.

Supporters of relaxing marijuana drug laws cheer the recent developments. “It was terrific,” said Don Murphy, director of federal policy for the Marijuana Policy Project, said of Mr. Sessions’ threat to the industry. “It moved this issue to a burner.”

Pot foes caution it is too soon to judge the impact of Mr. Sessions’ changes.

“It’s not a win for Jeff Sessions, but at the end of the day he still directs the department and could have the DEA close marijuana businesses,” said Kevin Sabet, president and CEO of the antipot group Smart Approaches to Marijuana.

The marijuana landscape contrasts notably with Mr. Sessions’ success in his broader law-and-order and antidrug push. He has rolled back Obama era policies that showed leniency to lower-level drug offenders, for example, instead urging prosecutors to seek the toughest punishments possible in most cases.

Mr. Sessions’ January marijuana policy left federal prosecutors to decide what resources to devote to marijuana crimes, stirring fear among dispensary owners that raids and arrests were imminent. Instead, many U.S. attorneys continued to use their limited manpower to target unusually brazen marijuana operations that are also illegal under state law, such as sprawling marijuana growers on federal lands or gangs that peddle pot along with other drugs.

Billy Williams, Oregon’s U.S. attorney, for example, is targeting the trafficking of marijuana across state lines, organized crime and businesses that supply pot to minors. This in many ways resembles the policy that prevailed under the Obama administration, which urged states to tightly regulate marijuana and keep it from crossing state lines to avoid federal scrutiny.

“I’m not making any blanket statements that we wouldn’t prosecute anyone,” Mr. Williams said. “It’s a case-by-case basis.”

Colorado’s U.S. attorney, Bob Troyer, is aggressively prosecuting drug traffickers who grow pot on federal lands, which is against both state and federal law. But his office hasn’t brought charges against dispensaries that comply with the state’s regulations.

“We never would give anyone immunity for violating federal law,” Mr. Troyer said. “As those threats evolve and change, something else could rise to the top priority level.”

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