BOSTON (Reuters) – Massachusetts’ top federal prosecutor will not rule out prosecuting businesses dealing in marijuana, he said on Monday, less than a week after the Trump administration rescinded an Obama-era policy easing enforcement in states that legalized the drug.
Massachusetts is one of eight states whose voters have legalized use of recreational marijuana, which remains illegal under federal law. Legal retail sales of the drug were to begin in Massachusetts this year under the terms of a voter initiative passed in 2016.
“Deciding, in advance, to immunize a certain category of actors from federal prosecution would be to effectively amend the laws Congress has already passed, and that I will not do,” U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said in a statement posted on Twitter. “The kind of categorical relief sought by those engaged in state-level marijuana legalization efforts can only come from the legislative process.”
The U.S. Justice Department on Thursday rescinded a policy put in place under Democratic President Barack Obama that limited enforcement of marijuana laws where the drug had been legalized, currently California, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Nevada and Maine. Maine has not yet cleared the way for retail sales.
Sam Kamin, a law professor at the University of Denver who focuses on marijuana policy, said that Lelling’s statement amounted “an accurate, if incomplete statement of where things stand,” as marijuana remains illegal and as Sessions instructed top prosecutors to use their discretion in deciding how to enforce the law.
“But he could also probably make clearer what will guide him in using that discretion,” Kamin said.
Regulate Massachusetts, the group that backed the voter initiative, expressed disappointment in Lelling’s statement.
“It’s troubling that just as Massachusetts’ legal framework is coming together we have the Department of Justice in Washington and potentially in Massachusetts throwing a potential roadblock in front of this new legal industry,” said Jim Borghesani, a spokesman for the group.
The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2016 ruled that the Justice Department cannot prosecute people over medicinal marijuana if they complied with their state’s rules and regulations. But the ruling held that people who violate the medicinal marijuana laws in their states can face federal criminal prosecution. The ruling did not cover recreational marijuana.
Reporting by Scott Malone and Nate Raymond; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Jonathan Oatis