Attorney General Jeff Sessions ended an Obama-era federal policy that prevented legal marijuana from being federally prosecuted. The decision comes four days after recreational use became legal in California.
The 2013 policy enabled states and localities to grow their marijuana market by guiding prosecutors to avoid charging marijuana users so long as they didn't interfere with certain aspects of federal law, such as selling to minors or for criminal gangs. Then-Deputy Attorney General James Cole wrote the memo.
Sessions has been a staunch opponent of marijuana throughout his political career. In a three paragraph memo on Jan. 4, he made it clear he believes it should remain recognized as an illegal substance:
Attorney General Jeff Sessions directs all U.S. Attorneys to enforce the laws enacted by Congress and to follow well-established principles when pursuing prosecutions related to marijuana activities. 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.
In the memo, Sessions said former President Barack Obama's policy "undermines the rule of law."
"Today's memo on federal marijuana enforcement simply directs all U.S. Attorneys to use previously established prosecutorial principles that provide them all the necessary tools to disrupt criminal organizations, tackle the growing drug crisis, and thwart violent crime across our country," the attorney general explained.
Sessions believes the previous policy was interpreted as a "safe harbor" for marijuana users, CBS News reports.
"This memo does not have safe harbors in it," he said, referring to his Jan. 4 memo.
A DOJ official said Sessions did not explicitly tell prosecutors to pursue the marijuana industry, according to NBC News. But many are still not happy.
Republican Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado is particularly displeased with Sessions, whom he says promised him before his confirmation that federal prosecution wouldn't occur in his state.
"I am prepared to take all steps necessary, including holding DOJ nominees, until the Attorney General lives up to the commitment he made to me prior to his confirmation," the senator wrote on Twitter on Jan. 4.
Drug policy and human rights advocacy groups have criticized Sessions as defying the will the U.S. majority. The head of the Drug Policy Alliance says 64 percent of Americans approve of legal marijuana.
"This battle will, unfortunately, play out in the courts while businesses or individuals are facing criminal charges for engaging in conduct that is legal in their state," said Amy Margolis of law firm Greenspoon Marder. "And, in large states, like California, federal law could be applied differently in different districts resulting in patchwork prosecutions even within state lines."
Anti-marijuana supporters, meanwhile, praised Sessions decision.
"DOJ's move will slow down the rise of Big Marijuana and stop the massive infusion of money going to fund pot candies, cookies, ice creams, and other kid-friendly pot edibles," said Kevin Sabet, a drug policy adviser from the Obama Administration and current head of Smart Approaches to Marijuana. "Investor, banker, funder beware."
Sources: U.S. Department of Justice (2), NBC News, CBS News, Cory Gardner/Twitter / Featured Image: Shane T. McCoy/US Marshals via Office of Public Affairs/Flickr / Embedded Images: Glenn Fawcett/U.S. Customs and Border Protections/Flickr, Michael R. Holzworth/U.S. Air Force