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Sessions’ reversal of marijuana policy brings fury from both parties

Man buys recreational marijuana.

In rescinding Thursday an Obama-era policy that paved the way for states to legalize marijuana, Attorney General Jeff Sessions triggered a hail of criticism from lawmakers on the left and right who took to the Senate floor, Twitter, Facebook and any other platform they could find to make their fury felt.

Sessions’ new policy will allow federal prosecutors in states where pot is legal to decide how to enforce the federal ban on marijuana sale or possession. But he made the announcement just days after the recreational marijuana market opened in California, sending the state into turmoil. Many states have legalized some form of medical marijuana, and a handful have legalized recreational use of the drug.

Under former President Barack Obama, the Department of Justice indicated to states in 2013 that while marijuana remained illegal under U.S. law, federal law enforcement officials would not interfere in states that chose to legalize cannabis as long as they hewed to certain restrictions such as barring minors from being able to buy it and prohibiting transport of the drug into states where it wasn’t legal. That memo is what Sessions rescinded Thursday.

“It is the mission of the Department of Justice to enforce the laws of the United States, and the previous issuance of guidance undermines the rule of law and the ability of our local, state, tribal, and federal law enforcement partners to carry out this mission,” Sessions said in a statement. “Therefore, today’s memo on federal marijuana enforcement simply 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.”

It’s still too early to predict the practical impact of the announcement on the industry, said Ames Grawert, an attorney in the Brennan Center’s Justice Program, but “this is going to have a significant chilling effect,” he ventured. “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 the referendum won’t have the effect that California voters indicated they wanted,” Grawert said.

Story by Kate Irby