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Sessions says US prosecutors won’t take on small-time marijuana cases

Federal prosecutors won't take on small-time marijuana cases, despite the Justice Department's decision to lift an Obama-era policy that discouraged authorities from cracking down on the pot trade in states where the drug is legal, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Saturday.Rich Pedroncelli/Associated PRess

WASHINGTON — Federal prosecutors won’t take on small-time marijuana cases, despite the Justice Department’s decision to lift an Obama-era policy that discouraged US authorities from cracking down on the trade in states where the drug is legal, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Saturday.

Federal law enforcement lacks the resources to take on ‘‘routine cases’’ and will continue to focus on drug gangs and larger conspiracies, Sessions said.

The comments come after the Trump administration in January threw the burgeoning marijuana legalization movement into uncertainty by reversing the largely hands-off approach that prevailed during the Obama administration, saying federal prosecutors should instead handle marijuana cases however they see fit.


The Obama-era policy allowed the marijuana trade to flourish, with eight states legalizing marijuana for recreational use.

The reversal added to confusion about whether it’s OK to grow, buy or use marijuana in states where it is legal, since long-standing federal law prohibits it. And it caused concern that prosecutors would feel empowered to jail individuals for marijuana possession.

‘‘I am not going to tell Colorado or California or someone else that possession of marijuana is legal under United States law,’’ Sessions said, answering student questions after a speech at Georgetown’s law school.

But, he added, federal prosecutors ‘‘haven’t been working small marijuana cases before, they are not going to be working them now.’’

Of particular interest are problems that federal authorities have tried for years to tackle, like illegal marijuana-growing operations on national parklands and gangs that peddle marijuana along with more harmful drugs.

Some law enforcement officials in states where it is legal argue the legal trade has caused unintended problems like black-market marijuana growing and dealing by people who don’t even try to conform to the legal framework.

It remains to be seen whether prosecutors will seek to punish state-sanctioned marijuana businesses. Some have indicated they have no plans to do so.


‘‘Those are the kinds of things each one of those US attorneys will decide how to handle,’’ Sessions said.

Eight states and the District of Columbia have laws allowing for recreational marijuana consumption, according to NORML, a group that advocates legalization and tracks pot-related legislation. Many more states permit the use of medical marijuana.

On Wednesday, Sessions delivered a fiery speech excoriating California for laws that he said impede immigration enforcement, the latest in a string of such attacks on states, cities, and their leaders whose policies he perceives as liberal, radical, and a violation of federal law.

As a Republican senator from Alabama for 20 years, Sessions was known as an advocate for states’ rights. But, as attorney general, observers say, he is making an exception when state policies bump against his conservative agenda.

Sessions had targeted so-called sanctuary jurisdictions for months, although this week he sued to block three of California’s laws that he alleged obstruct federal immigration authorities, his most aggressive step yet.

It’s not just immigration issues that have spurred Sessions to criticize local policies that he believes violate federal law.

‘‘It is the mission of the Department of Justice to enforce the laws of the United States,’’ Sessions said when he made his announcement in January making it easier for US prosecutors to enforce federal marijuana laws in the states.