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Find more in-depth cannabis news, culture and politics at EmeraldReport.com, authoritative marijuana coverage from the PD.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions took aim at states with legal marijuana markets Thursday by rescinding Obama-era policies that had directed federal prosecutors away from interfering with cannabis operators who were following state laws.

The policy shift came just three days after recreational cannabis sales began in California, causing an outcry from state officials including a scathing statement from Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who said Sessions’ action “defies facts and logic.”

California’s adult-use cannabis marketplace opened Jan. 1 when the state licensed more than 400 retailers, distributors and testing laboratories to start operations. Three dispensaries in Sonoma County — SPARC and Solful in Sebastopol and Mercy Wellness in Cotati — opened their doors for any adult customers over 21 without requiring physician recommendations.

A federal crackdown on cannabis operators licensed to do business in California could derail the state’s burgeoning $7 billion cannabis industry, which is expected to bring the state $1 billion in tax revenue. California legalized medical marijuana in 1996, and the industry has thrived, despite the threat of federal prosecution.

As more states passed medical marijuana laws, and with adult-use laws passed in Colorado in 2012, the Obama administration began steering prosecutors away from cases where state and federal laws conflict.

Sessions reversed the lenient stance recommended for federal prosecutors when weighing cases involving entities complying with state regulations that contradict the federal government’s prohibition against any marijuana activity.

State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, who helped shape California’s medical marijuana regulations, said the move demonstrates the questionable focus of the Trump administration, one bent on criminalizing marijuana when there are greater needs, particularly a strong response to the national opioid addiction epidemic.

“I’m blown away that the Justice Department is spending so much time on cannabis and ignoring the wildfire that’s in front of them related to the opioid drug crisis,” said McGuire, who noted a lack of federal funding support to combat opioid trafficking and abuse.

In 2013, a memo from then-Deputy Attorney General James Cole acknowledged states where voters have chosen to legalize marijuana and affirmed prosecutorial discretion in these states.

The guidance, widely known as the “Cole Memo,” directed prosecutors to focus on cases addressing the “most significant threats,” primarily keeping marijuana away from children and stopping criminal gangs from making money from its sales.

On Thursday, Sessions called this guidance “unnecessary.” In his memo, Sessions directed federal prosecutors to consider priorities set by his department, along with the seriousness of the crime, the Controlled Substances Act and “the deterrent effect of criminal prosecution.”

“The previous issuance of guidance undermines the rule of law and the ability of our local, state, tribal and federal law enforcement partners to carry out this mission,” Sessions said in a statement. “Therefore, today’s memo on federal marijuana enforcement simply directs all U.S. attorneys to use previously established prosecutorial principles that provide them all the necessary tools to disrupt criminal organizations, tackle the growing drug crisis and thwart violent crime across our country.”

Democrats decried the move, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, who called out Sessions in a tweet, saying “your unjust war against Americans who legally use marijuana is shameful and insults the democratic processes that played out in states across the country.”

California Treasurer John Chiang, who is running for governor, said in a statement that state efforts to bring the cannabis industry “out of the shadows” promotes public health by keeping it away from children and building a new tax revenue source.

“Until the slow, clunking machinery of the federal government catches up with the values and will of the people it purportedly serves, states — like California — will continue to both resist and, more importantly, to lead,” Chiang said.

The reaction from cannabis industry advocates and operators on the North Coast was measured.

Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association, said veteran cannabis legalization proponents expected the policy shift because Sessions is widely viewed as being “one of the more regressive policymakers in our country when it comes to cannabis.” Allen said it’s even more important for California policies to continue bringing operators into the legal, licensed system and discouraging black market activities.

“This underscores the importance of getting it right in California,” Allen said. “The law in our state is clear and we need to stand shoulder to shoulder on this issue.”

In his memo, Sessions made it clear federal prosecutors still maintain discretion when evaluating what cases to pursue with finite resources.

SPARC founder Erich Pearson said he hopes U.S. attorneys across the country, particularly in Northern California, will focus on actual crimes and not waste resources prosecuting “state-licensed legal, taxed and regulated cannabis that’s designed to keep the drug out of the hands of kids.”

“He’s still leaving the final decisions up to local U.S. attorneys, and I expect our U.S. attorney, as well as most in the country, will respect the will of the voters,” Pearson said.

Obama-era appointee Brian Stretch, the outgoing U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California, announced this week he was leaving the federal post to take a job with a San Francisco law firm. His last day is Saturday and an interim successor is expected to be sworn in and announced this weekend, spokesman Abraham Simmons said.

Simmons said there will be no immediate change to the office’s focus when it comes to marijuana-related crimes.

“The cultivation, distribution and possession of marijuana has long been and remains a violation of federal law,” Simmons said. “The U.S. Attorney’s Office will continue to assess and address the threats and challenges facing the northern district of California together with state local and federal law enforcement and allocate resources accordingly.”

Aaron Smith, president of the National Cannabis Industry Association, a lobbying group based in Washington, D.C., said it will redouble efforts to change federal drug laws. The majority of states — 29 — have legalized marijuana to some extent.

Smith, who grew up in Sonoma County, said he’s disappointed by Sessions’ action but “I do not see any indication that it signals an actual shift in policy.”

Sebastopol cannabis attorney Omar Figueroa said he believes the new focus could create greater instability across the country, “a return of the old days where federal marijuana laws were enforced differently depending on what federal attorney is in charge.

“Who will be least likely to be prosecuted? Probably state-licensed operators, medical and small-scale,” Figueroa said. “Who is most likely to get prosecuted? Probably huge, adult-use operations.”

Sonoma County Sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Spencer Crum said Sessions’ policy directive doesn’t alter the department’s enforcement approach toward marijuana. Most marijuana-related issues are now code violations and handled by civil actions. The department will still occasionally collaborate with federal law enforcement officers on drug-trafficking cases.

“It doesn’t change what we do,” Crum said.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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