Attorney General Jeff Sessions says state U.S. attorneys should use their discretion in deciding what resources to bring to his new war on legalized marijuana, taking into account “federal law enforcement priorities set by the attorney general, the seriousness of the crime, the deterrent effect of criminal prosecution, and the cumulative effect of particular crimes on the community.” Based on that rubric, our advice for how much effort Maryland’s acting U.S. Attorney Stephen Schenning ought to devote to the cause of cracking down on our nascent medical pot business? None.
Mr. Sessions’ opposition to legalizing marijuana in any form — whether recreational or medicinal — is clearly based on puritanical and misguided attitudes about the drug. Contrary to his assertions, plenty of good people do use marijuana, whether to relieve nausea from chemotherapy or for the same reasons people drink alcohol. He is certainly free to inveigh against what he believes to be the immorality and danger of intoxication in this or any form, but when it comes to the actual core responsibility of his job — maintaining public safety and order — he’s letting personal prejudice get in the way of a rational assessment of the issue.
It’s early in the history of marijuana legalization, particularly for recreational purposes, so the jury is out on important questions like the public health impacts and the ease with which minors can access the drug. Determining whether drivers are impaired by marijuana poses some complications that we haven’t completely ironed out. But a couple of things are eminently clear: Enforcement of marijuana laws disproportionately affected minorities, who were arrested at vastly higher rates than whites despite comparable levels of use, and legalization has shifted billions of dollars out of the black market and into a legal, taxed and regulated economy.
Mr. Sessions is reversing an Obama administration memo that essentially said the federal government would not enforce marijuana laws in states that legalized the drug, provided they included adequate protections to insulate the business from gangs and violence, to keep marijuana out of minors’ hands, and to prevent it from being trafficked over state lines to places where it remains illegal. That reflected a proper focus on the federal government’s real interest in the issue. Before the memo, both during the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, the Drug Enforcement Agency conducted raids on scores of legal medical marijuana businesses that were operating in accordance with state laws and regulations. It was a monumental waste of effort that did nothing to reduce the use of marijuana or to eliminate dangerous drug gangs. Returning to that approach would be a terrible mistake, and leaders of both parties in Congress have been quick to say so since Mr. Sessions’ announced his decision.
Although Congress has shown no willingness to change federal laws that list marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug — the same category as heroin and more regulated than methamphetamines or cocaine — it has acted in the past to provide some protection for the medical marijuana industry. Budget provisions have prevented the Department of Justice from spending any money on enforcement of drug laws against medical marijuana businesses that operate in accordance with state laws, and we hope and expect Congress to do so again. That’s not as good as reclassifying the drug so that states have some more permanent assurance that the industries they authorize and regulate won’t be shut down, but it would at least remove some of the uncertainty from the enterprise. And although we have not advocated for Maryland to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes, preferring instead to see how other states’ experiments with that policy play out, we believe Congress should extend that budget restriction to all forms of state-sanctioned pot businesses. To do otherwise would simply allow the DOJ to waste resources that could better be devoted to going after much larger threats to public safety.
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