Attorney General Jeff Sessions is reversing a policy that advised federal prosecutors to take a hands-off approach in enforcing federal marijuana laws (which prohibit the drug) in states where the drug has been legalized. Now, prosecutors will be able to decide how strictly they want to enforce federal law in states where it’s legal — presumably with the goal of cracking down more aggressively.
Marijuana is illegal under federal law. But in 2013, the Obama administration said it would not interfere with states that wanted to legalize the substance, as long as this didn’t lead to the drug spreading into non-legalization states. Sessions has been vocal in his opposition to marijuana and is in favor of cracking down on the substance. He previously stated that “good people don’t smoke marijuana,” and is now rescinding the Obama-era memo.
This move is at odds with public opinion, as polls show that 60 percent of Americans support legalizing weed, and legalization (both medical and recreational) has been gaining speed. Recreational marijuana is legal in eight states, plus the District of Columbia. On New Year’s Day, recreational pot became legal in California, creating the world’s largest market with sales projected to bring in $1 billion in tax revenue. Even other Republicans have called to ease regulations on the drug. Last September, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) introduced a bill to Congress that, if passed, would make it easier to do research on marijuana.
Under this change, US attorneys everywhere can decide how to devote federal resources toward marijuana enforcement. “This is a victory,” Kevin Sabet, president and CEO of anti-marijuana group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, told The Associated Press. “It’s going to dry up a lot of the institutional investment that has gone toward marijuana in the last five years.”
It’s also the latest back-and-forth in the history of marijuana, which has been legalized and criminalized and legalized in waves. Today’s activism around decriminalization is largely spurred by issues of social justice and the belief that criminalizing pot contributes to mass incarceration, according to scholar Emily Dufton, author of Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America. But as Dufton told The Verge last month, “Proclamations of legalization permanence are premature, particularly with Trump in office.”