Massachusetts’ fledgling marijuana industry has been thrust into a state of uncertainty. On January 4th, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Obama guidelines that excluded marijuana from federal drug enforcement priorities (possession and distribution of pot is a federal offense). Obama’s guidelines paved the way for the legalization of marijuana in eight states, including Massachusetts. Creating more uncertainty, Sessions is leaving federal enforcement of marijuana laws up to the individual US Attorneys in each state.
The timing of Sessions’ actions could not come at a worse time. After a rocky start, lawmakers and the state Cannabis Control Commission are poised to finalize regulations to allow retail sales of marijuana by the middle of 2018. To make matters worse, Massachusetts’ new US Attorney, Andrew Lelling, issued the following statement:
As the Justice Department has highlighted, medical studies confirm that marijuana is in fact a dangerous drug, and it is illegal under federal law. As a result, our office will aggressively investigate and prosecute bulk cultivation and trafficking cases, and those who use the federal banking system illegally.
Lelling’s statement leaves entrepreneurs and investors who purchased or have options on bulk growing facilities and retail space all over the state in an uncomfortable position, to say the least. Even if Lelling does an about face and provides comfort to cannabis industry participants that they will not end up in jail, US Attorneys are political appointees and can be removed and replaced anytime, along with their policies. What’s to stop the Attorney General from removing a US Attorney lenient on marijuana law enforcement and appointing one with a different view? If this issue is not resolved between state lawmakers and federal officials soon, the Massachusetts cannabis industry could go up in smoke before it begins.