Capitol Alert

California says it will defend legal cannabis despite Sessions’ threat of crackdown

California signaled its intent Thursday to defend the state’s voter-approved law legalizing recreational marijuana, hours after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo clearing the way for a federal crackdown on weed.

Two state leaders – Attorney General Xavier Becerra and Bureau of Cannabis Control Chief Executive Lori Ajax – issued statements saying they’ll defend Proposition 64, the 2016 initiative that led to the opening of the state’s first retail cannabis stores this week.

“We’ll continue to move forward with the state’s regulatory processes covering both medicinal and adult-use cannabis consistent with the will of California’s voters, while defending our state’s laws to the fullest extent,” Ajax said.

Becerra, whose office filed 24 lawsuits against the Trump administration in 2017, stood by the state law but wouldn’t say Thursday whether California is preparing a lawsuit or other legal action.

“In California, we decided it was best to regulate, not criminalize, cannabis,” Becerra said in a statement. “We intend to vigorously enforce our state’s laws and protect our state’s interests.”

The response came after Sessions issued a memorandum rescinding an Obama-era directive that allowed a fairly hands-off enforcement of federal marijuana in states that have legalized cannabis. California is one of eight states that have legalized the recreational use of marijuana, and California expects to collect $1 billion in taxes this year from retail cannabis.

Sessions’ directive allows federal prosecutors to decide whether to enforce laws prohibiting marijuana use, sales and cultivation. California has four federal attorneys who would determine how to enforce the law in their districts.

Sessions wrote that the Obama policy “undermine(d) the rule of law and the ability of our local, state, tribal and federal enforcement partners to carry out this mission.”

He added that his new guidance “directs 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 Trump administration’s new direction inflicted costly uncertainty on cannabis businesses around the country just as the industry celebrated the full opening of the California market.

Some pot companies lost 30 percent or more of their stock value hours after the announcement, according to New Frontier Data. Overall, publicly traded cannabis companies were down about 15 percent since noon on Thursday.

“This is going to have a significant chilling effect,” said Ames Grawert, an attorney in the Brennan Center’s Justice Program. “These businesses have always operated with uncertainty, rescinding this policy will make that worse. This could stop the California market from ever getting off the ground, and (Proposition 64) won’t have the effect that California voters indicated they wanted.”

Sessions’ announcement may lead to a hodgepodge of enforcement procedures across the country and even within the same state. Some U.S. attorneys could choose to devote significant resources to a crackdown, while others may focus on different priorities.

Despite that promise of discretion, a former Republican U.S. attorney said attorneys general have a strong hand in recommending federal prosecutors and Sessions probably has chosen lawyers whose views align with his in states where marijuana has been legalized.

“It is a chain-of-command organization, and policy is set at the top and followed down below,” said former U.S. Attorney Brett Tolman, who was appointed to a Utah district in 2006 under former President George W. Bush. “As a U.S. attorney you can choose which cases to pursue, but this is also going to hit the (Drug Enforcement Administration) and the FBI too, and pressure will go up, and the more cases you have the better budget you’re going to get.”

Just Wednesday, Sessions announced the appointment of 17 interim U.S. attorneys, including in three states that have legalized recreational cannabis. Grawert doubted that the timing of the new policy and new attorneys were coincidental, suggesting Sessions wanted to deal a blow to California’s huge pot market before it could get up and running.

Jonathan Blanks, a research associate in Cato’s Project on Criminal Justice, warned that dispensaries of recreational pot may be most threatened by the Justice Department’s changed policy. “The problem with these recreational dispensaries is they’ve had to register and show compliance, so they’ve provided evidence that they have committed a federal crime,” Blanks said.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, White House spokeswoman, said Thursday that President Donald Trump supports enforcing federal law, despite comments he made on the campaign trail that he believed the issue should be left to the states.

California lawmakers from both parties condemned Sessions’ order.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California said Sessions’ policy “bulldozes over the will of the American people and insults the democratic process.”

Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of Costa Mesa blasted Sessions, too, saying in a statement that Sessions “just delivered an extravagant holiday gift to the drug cartels.”

“By attacking the will of the American people, who overwhelmingly favor marijuana legalization, Jeff Sessions has shown a preference for allowing all commerce in marijuana to take place in the black market, which will inevitably bring the spike in violence he mistakenly attributes to marijuana itself. He is doing the bidding of an out-of-date law enforcement establishment that wants to wage a perpetual weed war and seize private citizens’ property in order to finance its backward ambitions,” Rohrabacher said.

Indeed, public support for the legalization of marijuana is at record highs, with 64 percent saying they believe it should be legal in an October Gallup poll. Aside from California, recreational marijuana is legal in Alaska, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon and Washington state. Medical marijuana is legal in 29 states.

Outside of California, Washington Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee held a press conference to announce that his state would defend its legalization of cannabis, and Republican Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado said he’d suspend nominations of Justice Department officials unless Sessions steps down. Their states were the first to legalize recreational cannabis.

“This reported action directly contradicts what Attorney General Sessions told me prior to his confirmation. With no prior notice to Congress, the Justice Department has trampled on the will of the voters in (Colorado) and other states,” Gardner wrote.

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a proponent of legal weed who campaigned for the initiative, called Sessions’ stance “destructive.”

“This position defies facts and logic, threatens the promise of a safe, stable and legal regulatory framework being pursued by 29 different states and continues the Trump administration’s cynical war on America’s largest state – and its people and progress – through immigration crackdowns, tax increases, climate policy reversals, health care repeals and now, marijuana policing,” Newsom said in a separate statement.

Angela Hart: 916-326-5528, @ahartreports. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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