There was no mention in the Sessions memo about how the USA attorneys should deal with marijuana production and sales where it is legal for recreational and medical use under state law.
Sessions wrote that he is simply directing "all U.S. Attorneys to use previously established prosecutorial principles that provide them all the necessary tools to disrupt criminal organizations, tackle the growing drug crisis, and thwart violent crime across our country".
The conflict between state laws that allow limited marijuana use and the federal law that bars it, in theory, falls in the domain of the federal Constitution's Supremacy Clause, which reads in part that "This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; ..., shall be the supreme Law of the Land".
Since 2014, federal lawmakers have attached language to spending legislation that explicitly bars the Justice Department from spending resources to enforce cases in states where medicinal marijuana is legal.
Senator Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor, chided Sessions for "going after" pot users rather than big fish. He said he was withdrawing an Obama administration policy that was meant to defer to state cannabis laws. "There are people of all races and creeds who benefit from medical cannabis, so that's why it's so crucial that Congress get together and take action". He threatened to retaliate by holding up confirmation of Sessions' picks for top DOJ positions. A US attorney in Colorado said he would not change his approach toward marijuana prosecutions, while a USA attorney in MA said he would pursue federal marijuana criminal cases.
Southern District of California U.S. Attorney Adam Braverman said Sessions' memo outlining the changes "returns trust and local control to federal prosecutors" to enforce the Controlled Substance Act. "Why are they bothering states that are trying to rejuvenate their economies?" he said, adding that legal marijuana would create a new industry and job opportunities.
Recreational marijuana became legal for adults in California on January 1.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions at the White House on December 20.
In 2013, the Obama administration announced it would take a hands-off approach to federal marijuana laws in states that legalize it. "Nearly two-thirds of Americans support legalizing marijuana use and the numbers are even higher among young people, but Sessions seems to be more fixated on his ideological crusade against marijuana than on facts".
"We want to let Jeff Sessions know he can not undercut, undermine the will of the American people", said Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, another caucus member. "It's now time for Congress to put the brakes on Sessions' destructive agenda by limiting the Justice Department's ability to undermine states' decision making". "The war on drugs, whether it went away or just slowed down, is now back". (DC also allows sales, and MA is expected to start issuing licenses in July.) Twenty-nine states have legalized the sale and use of cannabis for medical purposes.
"This battle will, unfortunately, play out in the courts while businesses or individuals are facing criminal charges for engaging in conduct that is legal in their state", Margolis said in an email to NBC News.
Instead of the previous lenient federal enforcement policy, Sessions' new stance will give federal prosecutors more leeway to decide how aggressively to enforce a longstanding federal law prohibiting it.
Anti-marijuana activist Kevin Sabet, however, praised Sessions' order, calling it "a good day for public health".
Marijuana advocates said the Obama administration policy hadn't had a long-lasting effect on use or regulation of the drug, and the Trump administration probably won't either. "DOJ's move will slow down the rise of Big Marijuana and stop the massive infusion of money going to fund pot sweets, cookies, ice creams, and other kid-friendly pot edibles".
Sessions has always been a cannabis foe who famously said "good people don't smoke marijuana" during a 2016 Senate hearing. In the 1980s, he said he thought the KKK "were OK until I found out they smoked pot".