Before last Thursday, state-licensed marijuana merchants operated in a highly uncertain legal environment, subject to the whims of federal prosecutors who could at any moment decide to shut them down, take their property, and send them to prison. Now that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has clarified the Justice Department's policy regarding the cannabis industry, state-licensed marijuana merchants operate in a highly uncertain legal environment, subject to the whims of federal prosecutors who could at any moment decide to shut them down, take their property, and send them to prison.
Sessions calls this "a return to the rule of law." The description is dubious, not only because the situation for state-legal marijuana growers and distributors is fundamentally unchanged but also because the cannabis crackdown threatened by Sessions offends a basic principle of constitutional law: The federal government may not exercise powers it was never granted.
U.S. attorneys prosecute a minuscule percentage of marijuana violations, and they have very broad discretion to decide which ones are worth their time. Sessions rescinded Justice Department guidelines that said a violator's compliance with state law was one factor prosecutors should consider.
The reasoning, as explained in a 2013 memo from James Cole, then the deputy attorney general, was that state-regulated marijuana businesses are less likely to impinge on "federal enforcement priorities" such as stopping interstate smuggling and sales to minors. Cole did not tell U.S. attorneys to leave state-legal canna-businesses alone, but since 2013 they generally have.
It's not clear whether Sessions' memo will change that. Sessions called the marijuana-specific guidelines "unnecessary" and said prosecutors should be guided by "the Department's well-established general principles." Last week the interim U.S. attorneys in Colorado and the Southern District of California, both Sessions appointees, said they would continue as before.
But given Sessions' well-known opposition to marijuana legalization, his memo was widely seen as portending more aggressive enforcement of the federal ban. That prospect provoked bipartisan criticism from state officials and members of Congress, uniting Democrats who support drug policy reform with Republicans who support federalism.
Sessions' boss counts himself in the latter group, and he has repeatedly applied the principle of state autonomy to marijuana. In July 2016, for instance, a TV reporter in Colorado Springs asked Donald Trump what he thought about using federal power to shut down the state-authorized cannabis industry in states such as Colorado.
"I wouldn't do that, no," Trump replied. "I'm a states person. I think it should be up to the states, absolutely."
That position is broadly popular. Last summer, a Quinnipiac University poll found that 75 percent of Americans, including 59 percent of Republicans, opposed "enforcing federal laws against marijuana" in the 29 states that "have already legalized medical or recreational marijuana."
Refraining from such interference also happens to be what the Constitution requires. Under the 10th Amendment, "the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people."
Unlike alcohol prohibition, the national marijuana ban was never authorized by a constitutional amendment. Its purported legitimacy instead relies on reading the power to regulate interstate commerce so broadly that it accommodates nearly anything Congress wants to do.
In 2005 the Supreme Court said the Commerce Clause covers every last speck of cannabis in the country, even if it never crosses state lines, down to the plant in a cancer patient's closet or the bag of buds in her nightstand. "If Congress can regulate this under the Commerce Clause," noted dissenting Justice Clarence Thomas, "then it can regulate virtually anything -- and the Federal Government is no longer one of limited and enumerated powers."
Republican critics of Sessions' marijuana memo echo Thomas's concerns about an overreaching federal government. If they join forces with legalization-friendly Democrats, they can pass a bill that protects canna-businesses from DOJ harassment and challenges the president to act on his avowed support for the 10th Amendment.