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Sessions takes aim on marijuana enforcement

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Attorney General Jeff Sessions released a memo on Thursday articulating the department’s intent to prosecute marijuana businesses under the Controlled Substances Act, going against prior communication from the federal government during the Obama administration that suggested marijuana prosecution was not a priority.

Gov.-elect Phil Murphy has said he plans to pass a marijuana legalization legislation within the first 100 days of his administration.

Previously, states that had passed state laws legalizing marijuana were given assurances by the federal government through communications such as the “Cole Memo,” that said prosecuting marijuana businesses was not a priority for the department. Sessions’ announcement specifically rescinds the Cole Memo, and any other prior communication about marijuana.

“Given the Department’s well-established general principles, previous nationwide guidance specific to marijuana enforcement is unnecessary and is rescinded, effective immediately,” said Sessions in the memo.

Cannabis business experts in the state of New Jersey said Sessions’ statement may be more policy posturing that greenlighting prosecutions.

“There is no funding for pursuing. They can look at it, but they can’t prosecute it,” said Joshua Horn, partner for Fox Rothschild which has offices in Morristown, Princeton and Atlantic City.

The department of justice is funded by congress, which budgets what the department can prosecute with the provided resources, said Horn. The Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, passed in 2014, specifies that the department of justice cannot spend its budget to interfere with medical cannabis laws.

“Sessions is making this policy statement that is against the will of the people,” said Horn.

Recreational cannabis businesses are still threatened by prosecution, but Horn said that has always been the case.

“I think the thing people miss is that [the Cole Memo] only ever applied to medical marijuana. Anyone in the recreational space has always been fully exposed.” said Horn. “Candidly, I don’t see any change.”

Other experts say Sessions’ memo goes against the popular sentiment in the country.

“Sessions retreat to a time long-past is the polar opposite of leadership,” said Charles Gormally and John Fanburg in a prepared statement, co-chairs for the Cannabis Law Practice Group at Brach Eichler, based in Roseland.

Even with the policy posturing, Gormally and Fanburg agree that Sessions’ memo won’t force New Jersey to change course to legalization.

“If it’s an initiative [Murphy] wants to pursue, this won’t change that,” said Fanburg.

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Arthur Augustyn

Arthur Augustyn

Arthur Augustyn grew up in Massachusetts and previously covered the video game industry in Los Angeles, city politics in Malibu, California, and local news in Bergen County before working at NJBIZ. He currently covers cannabis, government and tech.

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