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The DOJ Warns Massachusetts Over Legal Pot Program, But Says Opioid Epidemic a Priority

DOJ Warns Massachusetts Over Legal Pot
Photo Gracie Malley for Cannabis Now


The DOJ Warns Massachusetts Over Legal Pot Program, But Says Opioid Epidemic a Priority

The top federal prosecutor in Massachusetts isn’t giving the state’s legal cannabis program a free pass, but says he’s predominantly focused on the opioid crisis instead.

Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling has issued a statement regarding the legalization of recreational marijuana in the state. In the statement, Lelling noted that while adult-use marijuana has been legalized for distribution by the state and the ball is rolling on licensing new cannabis businesses, those activities are still very illegal at the federal level.

“Because I have a constitutional obligation to enforce the laws passed by Congress, I will not effectively immunize the residents of the Commonwealth from federal marijuana enforcement,” Lelling said in the statement. “My office’s resources, however, are primarily focused on combating the opioid epidemic that claims thousands of lives in the Commonwealth each year.”

Lelling went on to outline the areas where cannabis companies can expect to still see enforcement, given the experience of the federal Department of Justice in other states. He started by claiming that the overproduction of cannabis could still create a significant risk for diversion to other states, despite the best efforts of regulators trying to clamp down.

“These out-of-state sales are nearly always cash transactions and so often involve federal tax fraud designed to hide the illicit cash or its true source,” said Lelling.

The other two areas of focus he outlined were targeted sales to minors — already an ultra-red flag and dealbreaker anywhere you can sell marijuana — along with targeting international criminal organizations. He even made a reference to MS-13, an international gang that originated in Los Angeles recently making headlines thanks to President Donald Trump’s rhetoric against immigrants from Central America. Taking the marijuana industry out of the hands of international criminal organizations was one of the big selling points of legalization in the first place, which Lelling did not acknowledge.

Those preparing Massachusetts for recreational marijuana think they’ve already covered those concern areas that Lelling identified, as many states have done before them.

Speaking for herself, Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission member Shaleen Title told Cannabis Now, “We appreciate the U.S. Attorney’s statement. During the Commission’s regulatory process, we put in place strong mechanisms to address the priorities the U.S. Attorney has identified, and intend to enforce our regulations vigorously.”

Outside the Commonwealth, industry experts are betting regulators surely checked the boxes covered by the U.S. attorney.

“Despite his misleading claims that use by minors is going to increase, Mr. Lelling seems to simply reiterate what federal prosecutors in Colorado and other legal states already know — that it is a waste of resources to target cannabis businesses operating in compliance with state law,” National Cannabis Industry Association Media Relations Director Morgan Fox told Cannabis Now. “As it becomes clearer to him that members of this heavily regulated industry also have an interest in preventing the types of activity he is worried about, he will find that there will be little to no work for him to do that involves licensed cannabis businesses.”

The Marijuana Policy Project also found Lelling’s approach to be in line with recent moves by other federal attorneys in districts where cannabis is now legal.

“The U.S. attorney’s statement does not appear to stray very far from the enforcement guidelines that were laid out in the Cole Memo back in 2013,” MPP Spokesperson Mason Tvert told Cannabis Now. “Like that Obama-era guidance, he identifies certain priority areas on which he intends to focus enforcement efforts. Fortunately, these priority areas are all being addressed by state and local laws and regulations, and licensed businesses have generally demonstrated a strong desire to follow them.”

Tvert is hopeful that Lelling will “stick to his word, focus his office’s drug-related enforcement efforts on the opioid epidemic and leave marijuana enforcement primarily to state and local governments.”

Massachusetts issued its first recreational marijuana license last month to cultivators Sira Naturals. Earlier this month, the first retail license was awarded to a Leicester storefront called Cultivate. They will be able to sell marijuana to adults after they finish the final phase of licensing.

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