A directive from Attorney General Jeff Sessions to place discretion of federal marijuana enforcement in the hands of federal prosecutors has caused concern for advocates of medicinal and recreational use of marijuana in Michigan, but the implications of his decision remain unclear.
In a memo sent to all U.S. Attorneys Thursday, Sessions rescinded Obama-era policies that generally kept officials from enforcing federal marijuana law in states where its use had been legalized. The memo instructs attorneys to use their discretion in considering how and where to enforce the federal prohibition on marijuana.
Seven states and Washington, D.C. have legalized recreational marijuana, and 29 states — including Michigan — have legalized its medicinal use. The Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol is also working to get a petition to legalize recreational marijuana in Michigan on the November 2018 ballot, and coalition officials say the group has turned in enough signatures to qualify.
“In deciding which marijuana activities to prosecute under these laws with the Department’s finite resources, prosecutors should follow the well-established principles that govern all federal prosecutions,” the memo reads.
It’s unclear exactly what could come of Sessions’ shift in marijuana policy on a state-by-state-basis, but it largely depends on how the state’s U.S. attorneys respond. Michigan’s acting U.S. Attorneys are Andrew Birge in the Western District and Matthew Schneider in the Eastern District. Schneider was appointed to the interim position by Sessions Wednesday, Jan. 3.
Also a factor in ongoing discussions on potential marijuana prosecution is the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment, which prevents the Justice Department from using federal funding to intervene with state medical marijuana programs. That amendment was included in legislation that extends the existing federal government funding bill until Jan. 19.
Advocates for marijuana legalization were quick to criticize Sessions’ decision. Rick Thompson of pro-marijuana legalization group Michigan NORML called Sessions’ decision “a big mistake.” He said he didn’t believe the federal government would go after Michigan’s regulated medical marijuana system, but said it will cause confusion and concern for patients and businesses involved in the industry.
“We need continuity of regulatory structure that allows (business owners) to invest with confidence, and allows the people who join the medical marijuana program to know that their information is not going to fall in the hands of the DEA,” he said.
Thompson predicted Sessions’ memo could speed up efforts to challenge the existing prohibition on marijuana in federal courts, and potentially spur further activism in the leadup to the 2018 election cycle.
Josh Hovey, spokesperson for the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, said the group will continue to monitor the issue as it develops, but added the shift in policy makes the 2018 election more important.
“We need to make sure that we send a strong message to Washington to end cannabis prohibition and regulate it, rather than prolong an unnecessary war on marijuana,” Hovey said.
Pat Miles, former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Michigan and current Democratic candidate for state attorney general, said in a statement the decision by Sessions disrespects the will of Michigan voters. He said he would not cooperate with President Donald Trump’s administration if elected as the state’s top prosecutor.
Dana Nessel, also running as a Democrat for attorney general, said in a Facebook post that Sessions’ stance was “nothing short of horrifying” and vowed to protect Michigan’s legal consumers of marijuana and fight back against federal authorities who attempt to prosecute it if elected.
Andrea Bitely, spokesperson for current Attorney General Bill Schuette, said the department would continue to prosecute large-scale violations of the state’s existing medical marijuana laws.
Republican state Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, studied the use and impact of medical marijuana when regulatory bills on the substance passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chairs.
Jones said he personally doesn’t believe recreational marijuana is necessary, and sees why federal prosecutors might be interested in pursuing cases in states where marijuana is legal recreationally. He’s hoping the medical benefits of marijuana are considered as federal prosecutors look into the matter, however.
“I can understand what they’re doing, but I would hope that they look at the medical marijuana in a different light,” Jones said.
Sessions has long supported beefing up enforcement on marijuana prohibition in the U.S., advocating for a more active federal role on policing marijuana use and transportation across state lines. In a May letter to Congressional leaders, Sessions said it would be “unwise” to restrict Department of Justice funding when the nation is fighting what he described as a historic drug epidemic.
“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,” he wrote at the time.