President Donald Trump's War on Drugs has officially begun. Attorney General Jeff Sessions fired the first shot yesterday in the form of a memo ordering federal prosecutors to go after drug traffickers with the harshest charges carrying the heftiest penalties. And the move could put state-legalized medical, as well as recreational marijuana industries in jeopardy.
“We are returning to the enforcement of the laws as passed by Congress, plain and simple,” Sessions said earlier today. “If you are a drug trafficker, we will not look the other way, we will not be willfully blind to your misconduct.”
That threat should cause alarm for the 30 states that have legalized medical marijuana and the eight that have also approved recreational use. All uses of cannabis are prohibited according to federal law. So even though individual states say that licensed businesses are allowed to grow, transport and sell marijuana, those companies are still drug traffickers in the eyes of federal law. And everyone from the person manufacturing cannabis packages, to the bud-tender at the local dispensary, to the medical marijuana patient are technically criminals, in the eyes of Washington.
Sessions did not clarify if he intended to lump state-legalized cannabis industries together with other drug traffickers. So far, he has offered nothing but mixed messages on the Trump administration's cannabis stance. But by stressing the importance of applying federal law consistently, the Sessions Memo has ramped up concerns that the attorney general will begin enforcing federal cannabis prohibition once again.
Right now, the only thing protecting state-legalized marijuana industries is a budget rider preventing the DEA from using money to crackdown on medical marijuana programs. And the only thing standing between recreational industries and federal prosecution is an Obama administration memo ordering the federal government not to interfere with legal states. But Sessions has the power to strike down that memorandum. In fact, the order issued by Sessions yesterday did just that by striking down a different Obama-era memo. And if he does that, members of the recreational industry could face harsh prosecution.
The order released by Sessions yesterday instructs federal prosecutors to "pursue the most serious, provable offense" for drug offenders - even charges that carry mandatory-minimum sentences. Those sentences have come under fire recently for dishing out punishments that far exceed the severity of the crime. That's the case for a group of inmates known as the Marijuana Lifers - non-violent cannabis offenders serving life or de-facto life sentences for crimes in which no one was physically harmed. But even though these offenders did not harm anyone, judges were forced to give them severe punishments for their crimes.
And the number of Marijuana Lifers could spike if Trump gives Sessions free reign to enforce federal mandatory minimums for marijuana in legal states.