Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced on Thursday that he was rescinding an Obama-era policy that had paved the way for legalized marijuana to flourish in states across the country, prompting quick pushback from at least two Republican senators from states that allow its use.
In a long-awaited move, the Justice Department chief withdrew federal guidelines that effectively limited prosecutions of businesses and individuals who sold pot in a legal manner under state law, even though the drug remains illegal under federal law.
Sessions said future prosecutions would be up to individual U.S. attorneys. However, the announcement appeared intended to discourage marijuana-related business by being deliberately vague about future federal enforcement efforts.
The new approach will probably increase confusion about the legal risk of marijuana-related activity in states that have passed legislation allowing people to grow, buy or use pot.
“Given the Department’s well-established general principles, previous nationwide guidance specific to marijuana enforcement is unnecessary and is rescinded, effective immediately,” Sessions said in a one-page memo sent to federal prosecutors nationwide.
In a statement, the attorney general said the department’s earlier guidance “undermines the rule of law” by second-guessing the national drug laws Congress has passed.
However, Justice Department officials who briefed reporters on the announcement declined to say whether the new policy was intended to increase federal prosecutions for marijuana-related crimes.
“I can’t sit here and say whether it will or will not lead to more marijuana prosecutions,” said a senior DOJ official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We believe U.S. attorneys’ offices should be opened up to bring all of the cases that they believe are necessary to be brought.”