ST. GEORGE – The Justice Department rolled back an Obama-era policy Thursday that kept federal officials from going after marijuana producers and sellers in states where the drug is legal.
In response, a statement from the office of Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said the action “put up roadblocks” in the way of efforts to research marijuana’s medical applications. And one day earlier, Gov. Gary Herbert said he believes the legalization of medical marijuana in Utah will eventually happen.
The Associated Press reported Thursday that U.S. Attorney Jeff Sessions issued a memo to federal prosecutors they were at liberty to go after cases where state law was in defiance of federal drug policy.
“In deciding which marijuana activities to prosecute under these laws with the Department’s finite resources, prosecutors should follow the well-established principles that govern all federal prosecutions,” considering the seriousness of a crime and its impact on the community, Sessions told prosecutors in a one-page memo.
The change in policy comes in the wake of recreational marijuana sales becoming legal in California. Sales in the state are projected to reach $1 billion annually in tax revenue. However, the Justice Department said the change in policy wasn’t connected with the timing of this event.
Sessions, who served as a federal prosecutor in Alabama during the height of the so-called drug war, has long been opposed to legalized marijuana. During a congressional hearing in 2016, he said, “Good people don’t smoke marijuana.”
Sessions was not so emphatic about the issue while being questioned during his Senate confirmation in early 2017. During the hearing, he said he would use “good judgment” in relation to enforcing federal law that still marks marijuana as illegal while some states have legalized it for medical and recreational purposes.
Republican Sen. Cory Gardner, who represents Colorado, one of eight states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use, said the change contradicts a pledge Sessions made to him before being confirmed as attorney general. Gardner promised to push legislation to protect marijuana sales, saying he was prepared “to take all steps necessary” to fight the change, including holding up the confirmation of Justice Department nominees.
The Obama administration in 2013 announced it would not stand in the way of states that legalize marijuana, so long as officials acted to keep it from migrating to places where it remained outlawed and keep it out of the hands of criminal gangs and children.
It is not yet clear how the change might affect states where marijuana is legal for medical purposes. A congressional amendment blocks the Justice Department from interfering with medical marijuana programs in states where it is allowed. Justice officials said they would follow the law but would not preclude the possibility of medical-marijuana related prosecutions.
This isn’t the first time Sessions has rolled back policies made under the Obama Administration. In May 2017 he told federal prosecutors to go after the strongest changes possible against criminal suspects. This action rescinded the policy made by previous Justice Department that allowed for an easing of mandatory sentencing on a case-by-case basis.
While Sessions has been carrying out a Justice Department agenda that follows President Donald Trump’s top priorities on such issues as immigration and opioids, this change would seem to reflect his own concerns. He railed against marijuana as an Alabama senator and has assailed it as comparable to heroin.
During Trump’s candidacy, he said pot should be left up to the states, but his personal views on marijuana remain largely unknown.
Hatch and Herbert on the issue of medical marijuana
Hatch, who proposed legislation in September that would help ease federal restrictions on medical marijuana research, released a statement Thursday urging the Justice Department not to be a roadblock to research by creating more red tape instead of eliminating it.
Hatch office on DOJ’s marijuana announcement: “Senator Hatch encourages the Department of Justice to remove bureaucratic red tape – not put up roadblocks – to allow our nation’s top medical researchers to study the potential medicinal benefits of marijuana.” #utpol pic.twitter.com/nmTXOkcZ6K
— Senator Hatch Office (@senorrinhatch) January 4, 2018
In a pun-filled speech to the Senate in September, Hatch said, “It’s high time to address research into medical marijuana.”
He said the bureaucratic red tape set up by the federal government that impedes medical marijuana research needs to cut away and the process streamlined in order to get an end product into the hands of patients.
“The longer researchers have to wait, the longer patients have to suffer,” Hatch said.
Closer to home, Herbert was quoted Wednesday by Fox 13 News as saying he believes the legalization of medical marijuana in the state will eventually happen.
Herbert was speaking to a class of middle school students in Riverton when he was asked about the possibility of legalization.
“Let’s get the science done, the research done, have it as a controlled substance prescribed by a doctor, and certified by a pharmacist as a controlled medical substance. I think that’s the way to go,” he said. “So I think it’s gonna happen.”
There is currently a ballot initiative underway by the Utah Patients Coalition to get medical marijuana legalization on the ballot later this year. According to Fox 13 News, the group has so far obtained 85,000 of the 113,000 signatures required by the state.
While legalization may not necessarily come through the initiative or the Legislature, Herbert said, it may likely nonetheless happen sometime in the future.
Polls held throughout 2017 have shown around 75 percent of Utahns favor medical marijuana legalization. Results of an October Gallup poll showed over 60 percent of Americans favor legalization in general.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
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