The Justice Department is revoking an Obama-era policy that discouraged US attorneys in states where marijuana had been legalized from bringing charges in marijuana-related crimes.
“It is the mission of the Department of Justice to enforce the laws of the United States,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in the announcement Thursday. “Therefore, today’s memo on federal marijuana enforcement simply directs all US 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.”
The move is likely to lead to confusion about whether it is legal to grow, buy or use marijuana in states where it has been decriminalized. Long-standing federal laws prohibit the practice, and still classify marijuana it as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act, akin to heroin and cocaine. It is considered to have no medical use.
Sessions has been a vocal critic of marijuana legislation, comparing the drug to heroin and blaming it for spikes in violence. He has hinted that he would crack down on the growing cannabis market.
In May, the attorney general sent a letter to congressional leaders requesting they ditch an amendment in the department’s budget that blocks DOJ from using federal money to prevent states “from the implementing their own State laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession or cultivation of medical marijuana.”
Opponents and supporters of legal marijuana Thursday weighed in on news of the action.
“Jeff Sessions’ obsession with marijuana prohibition defies logic, threatens successful state level reforms, and flies in the face of widespread public support for legalization,” Maria McFarland Sanchez-Moreno, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement. “It’s now time for Congress to put the brakes on Sessions’ destructive agenda by limiting the Justice Department’s ability to undermine states’ decision making.”
Most arrests in the US are for drug possession, and marijuana represents by far the largest share of those arrests, according to the Alliance. The group advocates for policies and attitudes that reduce the harms of both drug use and drug prohibition.
Political satirist, radio host and civil rights activists, Randy Credico told RT criminalizing marijuana is an old tactic used to target the poor and people of color.
“When [president] Nixon kicked it off, [with] the drug war, and then [Governor] Rockefeller kicked it off statewide, 93% of the people who were going to jail on drug charges, either pot or cocaine, were people of color in the state of New York,” Credico told RT. “That was pretty much the same on the federal level. So these laws are used in the enforcement side of it against poor people and people of color.”
Credico was instrumental in helping to repeal the state’s Rockefeller Drug laws, under which someone caught possessing an ounce of marijuana faced a minimum sentence of 15 years if convicted.
Sessions is closely aligned with the private prison industry, Credico pointed out. The private prison stock price was going down towards the end of the Obama administration’s term, but have since skyrocketed under Trump. Ironically, Credico said, Sessions is also a big states’ rights supporter.