California Weed

Sessions’ weed decision puts spotlight on new U.S. attorney for eastern California

Cannabis 101: Here’s what you need to know about recreational marijuana

Budtender Danny Cress gives a crash course in recreational marijuana, legal in California as of Jan. 1.
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Budtender Danny Cress gives a crash course in recreational marijuana, legal in California as of Jan. 1.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to let federal prosecutors choose whether to more aggressively enforce marijuana laws means the new U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of California will have authority similar to what he held during a previous term in the office.

During that time, McGregor Scott prosecuted cases that sent fear throughout the medical marijuana industry.

Scott left the office in 2009, several years before a Justice Department official under President Barack Obama wrote a memo that essentially directed prosecutors to take a hands-off approach to states with legalized marijuana. Sessions rescinded that memo Thursday. Scott recently returned to the office as an appointee of President Donald Trump.

When he served as an appointee of President George W. Bush, Scott prosecuted a number of people in California’s medical marijuana industry, including a case that received national attention involving two young men from Modesto, Luke Scarmazzo and Richard Montes. Scott’s office said their dispensary was a criminal enterprise that flouted laws and raked in cash. President Obama granted Montes clemency in 2017.

Scarmazzo was sentenced to 21 years in prison, and Montes received a 20-year sentence in 2008. At the time, Scott said: “These two individuals cynically exploited the will of the voters ... making millions in the process. Today’s severe sentence should be heard loud and clear by those concocting similar schemes.”

During Scott’s first tenure as U.S. attorney, Cal NORML, a marijuana advocacy group, issued a press release decrying widespread prosecution of medical marijuana cases. “The Eastern District is particularly notorious for harsh sentences against medical marijuana defendants,” the release said, adding that Scott circulated a memo to local law-enforcement officials encouraging them to hand over medical marijuana cases to federal prosecutors.

Criminal-defense attorneys in California wonder if Scott’s views have changed. “He used to be a hardcore, anti-cannabis drug warrior,” said Omar Figueroa, a Sebastopol lawyer specializing in marijuana cases. “I hope he has evolved.”

Scott’s office deferred questions to the Justice Department in Washington, D.C. Officials there were not available Thursday afternoon.

The Eastern District covers 34 counties running from Southern California to Oregon, and from Nevada to Northern California’s coast. That includes part of the state’s famed “Emerald Triangle” that long has been a hotbed of marijuana farms, Sierra foothill communities that have many pot grows, and Sacramento, where 30 dispensaries operate under city license. Several of those dispensaries began offering recreational marijuana Monday, the first day sales were allowed in California.

Hezekiah Allen of the California Growers Association said he’s concerned Sessions’ decision could hurt the state’s fledgling recreational marijuana industry. He said a number of growers already have become frustrated with the state’s regulatory process, and Sessions’ announcement might further persuade growers to operate in the black market.

Allen said he is comforted by statements by California leaders, including Bureau of Cannabis Control chief Lori Ajax and Attorney General Xavier Becerra, condemning Session’s policy and standing up for the state’s legalization effort.

Sacramento cannabis consultant Jacqueline McGowan offered a similar perspective.

“We are fortunate to live in a state where our attorney general has stated several times that he will respect the will of the voters and will defend compliant operators,” she said. “What the new era looks like will depend on us continuing to be a compliant and responsible industry. A memo being rescinded doesn’t change any of this.”

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