WASHINGTON, D.C.—Attorney General of the United States Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III on Thursday gave a green light to federal prosecutors to bust marijuana users, even in states that have legalized pot, but while experts say that a harsh federal crackdown on marijuana appears unlikely, the five-day-old legal cannabis industry in California has been thrown into a state of confusion.
With recreational marijuana having become legal in California at the start of 2018, the state appeared set to become the world’s largest legitimate cannabis market, with some estimates seeing revenues hitting $7 billion over the next few years—and $1 billion in in its first year.
Marijuana at the federal level, however, classified as a Schedule I drug and treated no differently than addictive substances such as heroin, methamphetamine or cocaine, all of which are alleged to have "no medicinal value." But in 2013, President Barack Obama directed federal authorities to back off on pursuing marijuana cases, except under certain, well-defined circumstances. Obama’s policy gave tacit approval to states that chose to legalize marijuana for recreational or medical use.
On Thursday, Sessions ditched that Obama policy.
Because federal laws take precedence over state law, the decision to end Obama’s lenient policy toward legal marijuana could lead to arrests of California marijuana users, raids on legal pot shops and prosecutions of marijuana growers and sellers.
In his statement rescinding the Obama policy on Thursday, Sessions did not order federal authorities to begin prosecuting marijuana cases, instead leaving individual U.S. attorneys to set priorities in their own jurisdictions. As a result, legal experts believe that eliminating the Obama-era policy will have little immediate effect.
“Not much is going to change except the policy,” former U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia Joseph DeGenova, who added that in states where medical and recreational marijuana is legal, bringing marijuana cases against state-sanctioned businesses and consumers would be fruitless, because juries in those states, chosen from the local community, would be highly unlikely to hand down convictions in federal courts.
"This change on guidance actually is going to make very little difference," opined Georgetown University law professor William Otis, a former assistant federal prosecutor. “It's quite nuanced. It's a change in emphasis."
Moreover, according to conservative Glenn Beck's website , "Many Republicans in Congress have groused that Sessions’ decision puts them in an awkward position politically: only believe that marijuana should always be illegal and 49 percent of the American public supports legalized recreational marijuana."
California began legal pot sales on January 1, though in Los Angeles—epicenter of the adult entertainment industry—no businesses have yet been licensed to sell recreational marijuana, though one retailer opened in the independent city of West Hollywood on Monday.
But the process of granting those necessary permits will continue unabated regardless of Sessions’ move, according to a in The Los Angeles Times on Thursday.
Lori Ajax, chief of the state’s Bureau of Cannabis Control, told the Times that her agency pledged to process all permit applications while “defending our state's laws to the fullest extent.”
The largest pot retailer in Southerm California, MedMen, which has already opened shops in West Hollywood and Santa Ana, appeared undeterred by the Sessions move.
“The developments today don’t change the reality on the ground. Mr. Sessions has not said his office will crack down on state sanctioned cannabis businesses; he said he will leave discretion to the district level U.S. attorneys,” MedMen spokesperson Daniel Yi told Los Angeles magazine. “This creates more uncertainty, but what is certain is that the vast majority of Americans support marijuana legalization, the largest numbers ever in history.”
MedMen plans to open new marijuana retail outlets in Downtown Los Angeles, Venice and near Los Angeles International Airport, according to the Los Angeles magazine report.
Pictured: Marijuana dispensary on Ventura Blvd., San Fernando, CA, by Laurie Avocado; used with permission