The Trump administration announced Thursday that it was rescinding an Obama-era policy that had allowed states to legalize marijuana, raising questions about how Maryland's fledgling medical cannabis industry might be affected.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo saying that federal prosecutors should “weigh all relevant considerations” when prosecuting crimes. The Department of Justice characterized the memo as a “return to the rule of law.”
Sessions, who has assailed marijuana as comparable to heroin and has blamed it for spikes in violence, had been expected to ramp up enforcement.
The new policy will let U.S. attorneys across the country decide what kinds of federal resources to devote to marijuana enforcement based on what they see as the priorities in their districts.
Officials with the U.S. attorney’s office for Maryland declined to comment on Thursday, referring all questions to the Department of Justice in Washington.
Sessions’ move created further uncertainty for states, including Maryland, that have legalized some level of marijuana use. Maryland’s medical cannabis program just started selling the drug to patients last month.
Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh said it was too soon to say what the effects of the change in federal priorities will mean for the state’s medical cannabis companies and patients.
“It throws all of the state laws into chaos,” said Frosh, a Democrat.
Frosh said the prior policy from the Obama administration — known as the Cole memo, for its author, then-Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole — reflected common sense.
The Obama administration announced in 2013 that it would not stand in the way of states that legalize marijuana, so long as officials acted to keep it from migrating to places where it remained outlawed and to keep it out of the hands of criminal gangs and children.
The Cole memo had cleared up some of the uncertainty about how the federal government would respond as states began allowing sales for medical and recreational purposes.
“If they’re going to drop those priorities and just say: ‘OK, we catch somebody smoking a joint and we’re going to bust them’ or ‘We’re going into a business that’s legal under state law, but illegal under federal law, and take it down,’ that’s wrong-headed,” Frosh said. “It’s disruptive.”
Frosh said that under the Obama priorities, the decision to grow, sell or use marijuana in states where it was legal carried little risk.
“This new policy — whatever it ends up being — makes the risks and uncertainties much greater,” he said.
Frosh, who has sued the Trump administration multiple times over the past year, said he didn’t immediately see any legal action that Maryland or other states could take.
“There has always been an uncertainty over the legalization aspects of the sale of marijuana, whether it’s for medicinal use or recreational use,” Frosh said. “The federal government still has laws against it.”
During his campaign, President Donald J. Trump said that legalization of marijuana was an issue for states to handle. Asked about the president’s position Thursday, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said he supports enforcing federal law.
“Whether it’s marijuana or whether it’s immigration, the president strongly believes that we should enforce federal law,” she said.
Maryland has licensed dozens of medical cannabis growers, processors and dispensaries. Thousands of patients have registered to buy the drug, though supply has been limited since the first dispensaries opened in December.
Bryan Hill, owner of the Charm City Medicus dispensary in Dundalk, said he hopes to start selling medical cannabis next week, even as he figures out what the new directive from Sessions means for his business.
Hill said he’s hoping that the U.S. Department of Justice will come out with some protections for medical marijuana providers.
“We’ll have to digest it a little bit more and see what the alternatives are that he’s looking to provide, if any,” Hill said.
Jake Van Wingerden, chairman of the Maryland Wholesale Medical Cannabis Association, said in a statement that cannabis companies remain “laser-focused” on getting the drug to patients in the state.
“Patients have waited long enough for these important medications, in many cases suffering with chronic pain and debilitating illnesses,” said Van Wingerden, who plans to open SunMed Growers in Cecil County later this year.
Even with the apparent change in direction from the Trump administration, those in the medical cannabis industry have some protection — for now — through a provision called the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment.
That amendment has been put into federal spending bills, preventing the federal government from using its resources to stop states from implementing medical marijuana programs, said Kate Bell, legislative counsel for the Marijuana Policy Project. Courts have interpreted Rohrabacher-Farr to mean that federal authorities can’t go after legal medical marijuana businesses in those states, she said.
Marijuana advocates are trying to get Rohrabacher-Farr included in the next spending bill passed by Congress.
Bell said she’s hopeful that members of Congress continue to support states that have chosen to allow medical use of marijuana. She said Sessions is “out of touch” with the majority of Americans who support medical use of marijuana.
Rep. Andy Harris, a physician who is Maryland’s sole Republican in Congress, said he supports the move by Sessions. Harris has been a longtime opponent of legalizing marijuana and fought the legalization of the drug in Washington.
“Marijuana, a harmful drug, remains illegal under federal law,” Harris said in a statement. “Today’s move underscores the urgent need to do more rigorous research on proposed medical uses of marijuana.”
The Justice Department move plunges the recreational pot markets in states such as Colorado, California, Oregon and Washington into further uncertainty, and was met with a stinging bipartisan backlash from lawmakers in those states where marijuana is sold to any adult who wants to buy it.
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Whether federal prosecutors have the resources for, or even the interest in, undermining the national movement toward more permissive cannabis regulation remains to be seen.
Sessions and some law enforcement officials in states such as Colorado blame legalization for a number of problems, including drug traffickers who have taken advantage of lax marijuana laws to illegally grow and ship the drug across state lines, where it can sell for much more.
Marijuana advocates argue that legalizing the drug eliminates the need for a black market and likely will reduce violence, since criminals would no longer control the marijuana trade.
The advocates quickly condemned Sessions’ move as a return to the outdated drug-war policies that they say unduly affected minorities.
But marijuana opponents applauded the move.
“There is no more safe haven with regard to the federal government and marijuana, but it's also the beginning of the story and not the end,” said Kevin Sabet, president and CEO of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, who was among several anti-marijuana advocates who met with Sessions last month. “This is a victory. It's going to dry up a lot of the institutional investment that has gone toward marijuana in the last five years.”
Baltimore Sun reporter John Fritze, the Associated Press and the Tribune Washington Bureau contributed to this article.