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Justice Department Abandons Obama-Era Marijuana Guidelines


The Justice Department is changing its approach to marijuana enforcement. To talk about how far the Trump DOJ might go to bring new federal marijuana cases, NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is here with us in the studio again. Hi, Carrie.


SHAPIRO: What is the new Trump policy on marijuana?

JOHNSON: Well, the drug remains illegal under the federal law known as the Controlled Substances Act. Attorney General Jeff Sessions today rescinded some Obama DOJ guidance that instructed prosecutors in states where this drug is legal to bring only big cases, only cases that involve money laundering or marketing to children or violent gangs.

In its place, New Agey Jeff Sessions says U.S. attorneys should decide for themselves which kinds of marijuana cases to bring. Bottom line - Justice officials say there's no safe harbor anymore. They even held open the possibility they could sue states that have legalized the drug. And of course the timing's unusual because several states have already legalized marijuana for recreational purposes. California's went into effect earlier this week.

SHAPIRO: So do you expect we will see prosecutions of sellers or users of marijuana even in states where it is legal according to state law?

JOHNSON: At a Justice Department briefing for reporters today, Ari, there were so many questions and so few answers.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

JOHNSON: They told reporters they can't predict whether there are going to be more federal prosecutions coming or where. It's all kind of confusing, and that may be intentional. There's now a cloud of uncertainty for businesses that grow and sell marijuana and places that dispense it, thousands of jobs and millions of dollars at stake. And this kind of uncertainty could discourage other people from entering the market and send a message to other states considering legalization. That may be what Attorney General Jeff Sessions - no fan of marijuana throughout his entire career - may actually have in mind.

SHAPIRO: As a candidate, Donald Trump seemed to express support for state legalization in Colorado where marijuana is legal. Here's what he told a TV reporter last year.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think it's up to the states, yeah. I'm a states person. I think it should be up to the states, absolutely.

SHAPIRO: And we're going to speak with the governor of Colorado elsewhere in the program. Tell us what the White House is saying today about this policy change.

JOHNSON: Sure. At the White House, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders says the president believes we need to enforce federal law, whether that involves immigration or marijuana. To hear her tell it, the Justice Department move simply gives prosecutors the tools to target large-scale distributors.

But the Obama administration was already doing that, Ari. In fact prosecutors were telling me back then they already were trying to focus on the most important cases, not smalltime individual users of marijuana on federal land.

SHAPIRO: Today we've seen a lot of negative reaction from Congress, members of both parties. What are you hearing there?

JOHNSON: Yeah. Colorado Republican Senator Cory Gardner says he was misled by the Trump administration.


CORY GARDNER: This is about a decision by the state of Colorado. And we were told that states' rights would be protected and not just by the attorney general, then the nominee to be attorney general. We are told that by then-candidate Donald Trump.

JOHNSON: Senator Gardner says the Justice Department is trampling on the will of voters. He also suggests that polls say a majority of Republicans now approve of marijuana legalization. Gardner also said he's going to put a hold on every pending nominee who wants to work at the Justice Department until he gets some answers. Meanwhile in Colorado today, the U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer said he's going to keep on doing what he's already been doing, which is to focus on the biggest cases.

SHAPIRO: Is there any legal limit to how far the Justice Department can go prosecuting marijuana-related crimes?

JOHNSON: Actually there is. Congress, as part of its spending power, has restricted how the Justice Department can use federal funds to bring cases - involve medical marijuana. Those spending limits are still in place, and DOJ says it's going to respect them.

SHAPIRO: NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson, thanks.

JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.