Justice Dept struggles to explain impact of new marijuana policy

The Justice Department Thursday announced it was “rescinding” Obama-era guidance over how federal authorities should go after marijuana-related crimes, touting the latest move as “a return to the rule of law.”

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But senior Justice Department officials struggled to explain how the new policy would actually differ from that of their predecessors, and they refused to promise more criminal cases or other law enforcement activity than the Obama administration.

“I can’t sit here and say whether or not it will or won’t lead to more marijuana prosecutions,” one senior official said, speaking with reporters on the condition of anonymity.

In 2013, as more states continued to legalize the use of medical and recreational marijuana, the Justice Department issued a memorandum to federal prosecutors across the country, telling them to focus their “limited investigative and prosecutorial resources” on “the most significant threats,” including marijuana operations tied to cartels and gangs, large-scale drug traffickers, and “the diversion” of marijuana from states that have legalized it to states where it’s banned.

According to the senior Justice Department official, that 2013 memorandum was interpreted to create “a safe harbor for the marijuana industry to operate” in certain states, and it led marijuana users and operators in those states to believe they would not be prosecuted if they “were in compliance with state regulatory processes.”

But since becoming attorney general last year, Sessions has repeatedly called for tougher law enforcement tied to marijuana and warned of what he sees as serious dangers posed by the drug.

In his own one-page memo to federal prosecutors Thursday, Sessions said he was rescinding the 2013 memo and any related memos because they are “unnecessary” given “the Department’s well-established general principles,” which direct federal prosecutors to “weigh all relevant considerations” when deciding what cases to bring.

“This return to the rule of law is also a return of trust and local control to federal prosecutors who know where and how to deploy Justice Department resources most effectively to reduce violent crime, stem the tide of the drug crisis, and dismantle criminal gangs,” the Justice Department said in a statement.

Mathew Sumner/AP
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