WASHINGTON – As part of a crackdown on legal marijuana, the Justice Department is set to roll back an Obama administration policy to not challenge state laws that allow people to use pot for medical and recreational uses an official familiar with matter said Thursday.
The move represents a dramatic shift in marijuana enforcement policy. The official, who is not authorized to comment publicly ahead of a formal announcement, said details of the new policy to reverse a 2013 Obama administration directive of non-interference would be outlined later Thursday.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has long signaled his disagreement with the previous administration’s stance on pot, which did not challenge state laws, as long as marijuana sales did not conflict with federal law enforcement policies..
The Obama policy, which represented a major breakthrough by advocates for the decriminalization of marijuana use, did not change marijuana’s classification as an illegal drug. But it effectively discouraged the pursuit of non-violent marijuana users who have no links to criminal gangs or cartel operations.
The expected move injected fresh uncertainty into an industry that has flourished largely because federal prosecutors have maintained their hands-off approach.
Sessions’ decision to revoke the previous administration policy should be a warning sign to institutional investors, said Kevin Sabet, director of the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana and a former federal drug-control expert who served in the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations.
“It signals the end of safe harbor for major pot investors,” Sabet said. “This throws up everything in the air one thought they knew about the federal government‘s position on marijuana, which up to this date was more of a ‘see no evil, hear no evil’ policy.”
The announcement comes the same week California launched recreational marijuana sales for adults. Every state that’s approved recreational pot sales – Alaska, Oregon, Washington, California, Nevada, Colorado, Maine and Massachusetts – has done so though voter approval at the ballot box, showing strong public approval for legal pot.
Local legislators have also become legalization advocates as marijuana sales generate new tax revenues. California’s newly legal market alone could be worth as much as $5.1 billion this year, according to cannabis financial analysis firm GreenWave Advisors. And Colorado lawmakers have been pouring tens of millions worth of marijuana taxes into university scholarships, drug-treatment programs and school construction.
“This move represents a broken campaign promise by the president,” said Tom Angell of the pro-legalization group Marijuana Majority. “He clearly and repeatedly pledged that he would respect state marijuana laws if elected. With polls showing that marijuana legalization is way more popular than the president is, this will likely turn out to be a huge political disaster for the administration. Either way, it’s not going to stop even more states from modernizing their cannabis laws.”