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5 things to know about the Mass. standoff with the feds over marijuana

The announcement by US Attorney General Jeff Sessions last week giving federal prosecutors the authority to press marijuana cases in states where it has been legalized is stirring confusion and wariness among Massachusetts officials and consumers. Here is a look at five key questions.

Is marijuana legal in Massachusetts?

Massachusetts voters approved Question 4, which legalized marijuana, by a vote of 54 percent to 46 percent in a statewide referendum in 2016. Recreational pot sales are on track to begin in July under the supervision of the newly-created Cannabis Control Commission. There’s one major problem: Marijuana is still illegal under federal law.

Why wasn’t there a problem before this?


As states nationwide began approving marijuana for medical or recreational use, the Obama administration curtailed enforcement of the federal marijuana laws in those states, sharply limiting prosecution of dispensaries, banks, and other participants in the newly legitimate marijuana business. But the Trump administration last week rescinded those policies. As a result, each US attorney now has more flexibility to enforce — or not — the federal prohibition on production and sale of the drug in those states.

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So what are federal prosecutors in Massachusetts planning to do?

On Monday, Massachusetts US Attorney Andrew E. Lelling said, “Congress has unambiguously made it a federal crime to cultivate, distribute, and/or possess marijuana. As a law enforcement officer in the executive branch, it is my sworn responsibility to enforce that law.” However, he also said he would assess on a case-by-case basis whether it was worth using “limited federal resources” to clamp down on marijuana operations. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said she wants more clarification on what he meant.

Why are people concerned about Lelling’s statement?

While federal prosecutors in some other parts of the country suggested state-licensed marijuana growers and retailers wouldn’t be the focus of enforcement efforts, Lelling, an appointee of President Trump, has declined to make such a pledge. The prosecutor left open the possibility he would spare state-regulated companies to focus federal law enforcement resources on illicit growers and dealers. But last week he called marijuana a “dangerous drug” and said his office would go after “bulk cultivation” operations.


What effects do people foresee on the burgeoning marijuana industry in the state?

Some in the industry are concerned that, with the threat of federal enforcement hanging over their heads, investors might shun marijuana businesses, and banks might drop them as clients. They also say it might reduce the incentive for underground operators to join the state-regulated market, undermining licensed companies and resulting in less safe products.

Others say that the threat of federal action won’t be a problem, contending that cannabis has always been illegal at the federal level and that investors in the space are comfortable with the risk.

Martin Finucane of the Globe staff contributed to this report.