In a memo released to federal prosecutors, Attorney General Jeff Sessions opened the door for prosecutors to “charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense” in federal drug cases, including those against low-level offenders.
While the memo does not explicitly mention cannabis, it signals a sharp escalation of an enforcement-focused approach to federal drug enforcement that, while not unexpected, is still sweeping in its scope and severity.
From the memo:
“Prosecutors should charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense. This policy affirms our responsibility to enforce the law, is moral and just, and produces consistency. This policy fully utilizes the tools Congress has given us. By definition, the most serious offenses are those that carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory minimum sentences.”
This abrupt policy change represents a drastic overhaul of Obama-era reforms, which sought to address the negative social impacts of prison overcrowding and scale back federal reliance on the profit-driven corrections system.
Unsurprisingly, former AG Eric Holder, who was instrumental in implementing the reforms of the Obama administration, has voiced strong criticism of the new Sessions memo, declaring it “dumb on crime.”
From Holder’s statement, emphasis added:
“The policy announced today is not tough on crime. It is dumb on crime. It is an ideologically motivated, cookie-cutter approach that has only been proven to generate unfairly long sentences that are often applied indiscriminately and do little to achieve long-term public safety… these reversals will be both substantively and financially ruinous, setting the Department back on track to again spending one-third of its budget on incarcerating people, rather than preventing, detecting, or investigating crime.”
And while he didn’t mention medical or recreational cannabis directly, in a speech shortly following the release of the memo, Sessions made a statement that has chilling implications for those involved in state-legal cannabis business.
“We are returning to the enforcement of the laws as passed by Congress, plain and simple,” Sessions said. “If you are a drug trafficker, we will not look the other way, we will not be willfully blind to your misconduct.”
Still, for the time being — at least until the end of the fiscal year — the DOJ has severe limits on what it can do (regarding medical cannabis anyway) thanks to the temporary protections of the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment.
Justin Strekal, Political Director for NORML, said the organization is still having an internal conversation about the full scope of the immediate impacts of the memo on state-legal cannabis, but stressed that while the memo may not call out cannabis by name, AG Sessions is always talking about marijuana when he talks about drugs.
“Jeff sessions made it clear he does not see any difference between marijuana and heroin. So when he talks about the war on drugs he always means marijuana,” Strekal said. “At the end of the day this [memo] is just another step in the sequence of steps that the AG has further taken to position himself in the ’80s-style rhetoric of ‘Just Say No’ and the ’70s-style rhetoric of ‘The War On Drugs.'”
Strekal also said that, while NORML acknowledges the shortcomings of the Obama administration in the realm of decriminalization, the reforms that were put in place during his presidency — chief among them the contents of the Cole Memo — have been key to the success and security of state-legal weed.
“While we very much appreciated all the thing the Obama administration did not do for marijuana reform, one of the things that was so crucial about the DOJ was their relaxing enforcement of federal prohibition,” he said. “We’re going to continue to be vigilantly looking out for any changes to the Cole Memo and… we don’t know what he wants to do — with the full force of the DOJ — with marijuana, but we do know his militant prohibitionist history.”
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