The buzz kill long dreaded in the marijuana industry came just days after California opened what is expected to be the world’s largest legal pot market.
The Trump administration announced Thursday it was ending an Obama-era policy to tread lightly on enforcing U.S. marijuana laws. The declaration renewed anxiety, confusion and uncertainty that has long shadowed the bright green leafy drug still forbidden under federal law, but now legal in a majority of states as medicine and in a handful of those for recreational purposes.
“Everybody is super worried. My phone has been going off the hook,” said Terry Blevins, who runs a security firm and is part-owner of a marijuana distribution company in Southern California. “They are all, `What does this mean? … Is the federal government going to come into California” to raid businesses?
Officials wouldn’t say if federal prosecutors would target pot shops and legal growers, nor would they speculate on whether pot prosecutions would increase.
The action by Attorney General Jeff Sessions was not unexpected given his longtime opposition to pot, but comes at a heady time for the industry as retail pot sales rolled out New Year’s Day in California.
In 2013, President Barack Obama’s attorney general advised prosecutors not to waste money targeting pot growers and sellers that were abiding by state laws, but to go after flagrant violations such as trafficking across state lines or selling to minors. Under this policy, several states legalized recreational pot, growers and sellers had begun to drop their guard over fears of a federal crackdown and the business blossomed into a sophisticated, multimillion-dollar industry feeding state government programs with tax dollars.
Sessions and some law enforcement officials blame legalization for a number of problems, including trafficking black market weed. Authorities are also concerned about stoned drivers and fear that widespread acceptance of the drug could increase its youth appeal.
Sessions made his views on marijuana clear at a March 2017 news conference.
“I am astonished to hear people suggest that we can solve our heroin crisis by legalizing marijuana — so people can trade one life-wrecking dependency for another that’s only slightly less awful,” he said.
Advocates for the drug that is classified in federal law in the same category as heroin have argued that it has medicinal qualities and causes less harm than alcohol. They have said the government needs to focus on rampant opioid abuse and allow a regulated marijuana market that will reduce crime by eliminating the need for a black market.
State officials not ready to change approach
Pot proponents along with some members of Congress, including Sessions’s fellow Republicans, roundly condemned the change in direction Thursday and said it was an intrusion upon the rights of states whose voters had approved use of the drug.
“If … Congress allows the Department [of Justice] to crack down on individuals and state governments, it will be one of the biggest derelictions of duty I will have witnessed,” said U.S. Rep. Don Young, a Republican from Alaska. “Congress is the voice of the people and we have a duty to do what is right by the states.”
Republican Sen. Cory Gardner, who represents Colorado, one of eight states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use, said the change contradicts a pledge Sessions made to him before being confirmed as attorney general.
Gardner promised to push legislation to protect marijuana sales, saying he was prepared “to take all steps necessary” to fight the change, including holding up the confirmation of Justice Department nominees.
Colorado’s U.S. attorney, Bob Troyer, said his office won’t change its approach to prosecution, despite Sessions’s guidance. In Oregon, U.S. Attorney Billy J. Williams said he would maintain the same level of enforcement and focus on unlicensed production of marijuana and smuggling out of state.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, said the state, which allowed retail pot sales starting in 2012, would continue marijuana operations.
“We should, in my book, not push the panic button on either your individual lives or your businesses,” Inslee said.
Asked about the policy direction, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Thursday that “regardless of what the topic is, whether it’s marijuana, or whether it’s immigration, the president strongly believes we should enforce federal law.”
But when asked on the campaign trail in July 2016 if he would allow his attorney general to use federal authority to intervene Trump said, “I wouldn’t do that, no.”
Some Californians feel ‘targeted’
Some sheriffs in California welcomed the news, particularly in the northern part of the state where the majority of weed has been grown illegally for decades and enforcement of laws largely falls to rural authorities with limited budgets.
Yuba County Sheriff Steve Durfor said he’s hopeful Sessions’s actions signal a new willingness of federal authorities to help the impoverished region enforce marijuana laws. His department outside Sacramento has struggled to slow a large and growing influx of illegal operations setting up shop in the region. Officers destroyed a record 30,000 plants last year, surpassing the previous record of 8,800 plants destroyed in 2016.
Officials denied the timing of the announcement was connected to California sales, which are projected to bring in $1 billion US annually in tax revenue within several years. Officials there, including U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, criticized the move.
Instead of going after drug cartels, and violent crime, and major traffickers, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is going after recreational marijuana users. That’s not being smart on crime.https://t.co/BNlcxbTT4v
But it represents a continuation of Trump’s contentious relationship with the state, which the president lost by 30 percentage points to his Democratic rival.
Trump, who also lost the popular vote in the general election to Hillary Clinton by over three million votes, publicly cited the state as one in which untold numbers voted illegally, without providing supporting evidence. The administration convened a voter fraud commission to examine the issue, but that was shuttered this week.
Trump and Sessions have also lashed out at Los Angeles and San Francisco officials, marking them as among the large “sanctuary” cities that defy the federal government in detaining illegal immigrants.
At Harborside in Oakland, one of California’s largest shops, founder and CEO Steve DeAngelo said it was business as usual and he wanted to assure customers not to fear shopping there.
“We’ve been targeted by the federal government before and we stand up and we fight for our rights,” DeAngelo said. “Six months from now if U.S. attorneys have not taken Jeff Sessions up on this crazy offer, then I think that it absolutely makes no difference to anybody.”