By Scott Malone and Nate Raymond
BOSTON (Reuters) - Massachusetts' top federal prosecutor will not rule out prosecuting businesses dealing in marijuana, he said on Monday, days after the Trump administration rescinded an Obama-era policy easing enforcement in states that legalized the drug.
The state is one of eight across the United States where voters in recent years have passed initiatives legalizing recreational use of the drug, which remains illegal under federal law. Legal retail marijuana sales are due to begin in Massachusetts this year under the terms of a voter initiative passed in 2016.
"Deciding, in advance, to immunize a certain category of actors from federal prosecution would be to effectively amend the laws Congress has already passed, and that I will not do," U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said in a statement. "The kind of categorical relief sought by those engaged in state-level marijuana legalization efforts can only come from the legislative process."
The U.S. Justice Department on Thursday rescinded a policy put in place under Democratic President Barack Obama that limited enforcement of marijuana laws where the drug had been legalized, currently California, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Nevada and Maine. Maine has not yet cleared the way for retail sales.
Sam Kamin, a law professor at the University of Denver who focuses on marijuana policy, said that Lelling's statement amounted to "an accurate, if incomplete statement of where things stand," as marijuana remains illegal and as U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions instructed top prosecutors to use their discretion in deciding how to enforce the law.
"But he could also probably make clearer what will guide him in using that discretion," Kamin said.
Regulate Massachusetts, which backed the voter initiative, expressed disappointment in Lelling's statement.
"It's troubling that just as Massachusetts' legal framework is coming together we have the Department of Justice in Washington and potentially in Massachusetts throwing a potential roadblock in front of this new legal industry," said Jim Borghesani, a spokesman for the group.
Advocates contend that lifting bans on the sale of marijuana will allow states to collect taxes on and better regulate a trade that already exists within their borders.
Colorado, which in 2014 became the first U.S. state to legalize recreational use of the drug, collected $226.2 million in marijuana-related taxes, licenses and fees in the first 11 months of 2017, according to state data.
Republican U.S. President Donald Trump's stepped-up federal enforcement could take a toll on the burgeoning legal marijuana industry.
(Reporting by Scott Malone and Nate Raymond; Editing by Steve Orlofsky, Jonathan Oatis and Susan Thomas)