The U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Thursday he would be rolling back a directive put in place by the Obama administration that promised the federal Justice Department would not interfere with state regulation of marijuana markets.
The one-page memo undid a the Obama era Cole Memo, which established a hands-off approach that the federal government followed.
The action by Sessions means federal prosecutors can now go after businesses and individuals in the marijuana industry.
Response from Washington state authorities was swift, as Gov. Jay Inslee issued a statement hours later.
“Today’s forthcoming announcement from Attorney General Sessions is the wrong direction for our state. It is also (sic) disrespects Washington voters who have chosen a different path for our state,” Inslee said in the release.
Recreational marijuana markets were approved by Washington voters in 2012 with the passage of I-502.
Inslee said in the release the state put a regulatory system in place that adheres to the will of its voters.
“It’s well regulated, keeps criminal elements out, keeps pot out of the hands of kids and tracks it all carefully enough to clamp down on cross-border leakage. We are going to keep doing that and overseeing the well-regulated market that Washington voters approved,” Inslee said in the release.
NORML, a marijuana activist group seeking to end federal marijuana prohibition, also issued statement.
“This action flies in the face of sensible public policy and broad public opinion,” Erik Altieri, the groups executive director, said in a release.
Sessions has a long history of opposing marijuana legalization.
The New York Times reported in November 2016 that Sessions allegedly said at one point he thought the Klu Klux Klan “was O.K. until I found out they smoked pot.”
The Independent reported that in April of the same year Sessions said “good people don’t smoke marijuana.”
The Cole Memo provided guidance for states that legalized marijuana, and detailed how they could operate a market without the federal government stepping in. This included strict tracking procedures for marijuana, along with other regulations that sought to keep marijuana away from minors.
Legalization in Washington state was additionally intended to reduce the number of people in jail for low-level marijuana offenses, and to drive the black market out of business.
The Drug Policy Alliance found in a 2015 report that low-level marijuana offenses dropped 98 percent for adults of 21 following I-502s passage.
All categories of marijuana violations dropped 63 percent and convictions were down 81 percent.
Despite uncertainty at the federal level, Jon Sherman, one of the owners of Origins Cannabis in Redmond and West Seattle, said he wasn’t too worried.
“It seems like a lot of bark,” he said.
With challenges in the federal budget, Sherman said enforcement could be challenging for the federal government and that the state government already conducted rigorous enforcement of Washington laws.
In the past 10 days, Liquor and Cannabis Board agents had been in the store three times.
“We’ve got to make sure that we’re on our tippy toes all the time,” he said.
Even if the federal government initiates a crackdown on marijuana businesses, Sherman said he was confident state Attorney General Bob Ferguson would step in.
“I truly believe that Bob Ferguson is going to stand up for that fight,” he said. “There’s not a lot of concern.”
For businesses operating according to state law, Sherman said they shouldn’t have much to worry about.
“Those of us that are doing business, and doing stuff the right way, shouldn’t be worried,” he said.
Even if Sessions is against marijuana use, public opinion on the plant has been shifting in recent decades.
Twenty-nine states and Washington, D.C. now have moved to legalize marijuana in some capacity, and according to Gallup, 64 percent of Americans polled said marijuana should be legal.