Attorney General Jeff Sessions struck down an Obama-era policy on Thursday that discouraged enforcement of federal marijuana laws in states that legalized the drug, a move that could complicate efforts in New Jersey to allow legal weed.
In a memo sent to all U.S. attorneys, Sessions rescinded previous guidelines that essentially allowed states with legal marijuana to enforce their own pot laws. His action will now let federal prosecutors in those states decide how aggressively to enforce federal marijuana laws.
“It is the mission of the Department of Justice to enforce the laws of the United States, and 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.
In 2013, the Obama administration announced it would take a hands-off approach to federal marijuana laws in states that legalize it. Rescinding that policy will likely cause more confusion in the eight states that have legalized marijuana, as the substance has long been banned by the federal government.
The move comes as Governor-elect Phil Murphy, a Democrat who campaigned on legalizing recreational marijuana in New Jersey, prepares to take office on Jan. 16. Murphy has made legalizing pot a priority for his first year as governor, and state lawmakers are expected to debate the issue in the coming months.
“Governor-elect Murphy believes strongly in New Jersey’s right to chart its own course on legalizing marijuana, which will allow for law enforcement to focus their time and resources on prosecuting violent crimes rather than non-violent drug offenders,” Murphy spokesman Daniel Bryan said in a statement on Thursday in response to Sessions’ decision.
Murphy has argued that legalizing recreational marijuana would help reduce racial disparities in arrests and incarceration while also bringing in much-needed tax revenue. Murphy’s campaign estimated that New Jersey could collect roughly $300 million annually by taxing weed sales, money Murphy needs to help pay for his other policy promises, such as a boost in funding for schools and public worker pensions.
State Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), who sponsors a bill to legalize and tax marijuana in New Jersey, called the move by Sessions “disappointing” but said it shouldn’t curb the push to allow recreational pot in the state. “It’s not a direct assault on the effort, but it is certainly something that is concerning,” he said.
Scutari went on to blast the Trump administration’s decision, describing it as an infringement on states’ rights. “Why are they bothering states that are trying to rejuvenate their economies?” he said, adding that legal marijuana would create a new industry and job opportunities.
Local opponents of legal marijuana seized on Sessions’ memo as proof New Jersey officials should slow down on legalizing weed. “The federal government does have an interest in this,” said state Sen. Joe Pennacchio (R-Morris). “I think it should help us hit the pause button, which is what I’ve been saying all along.”
Pennacchio said he has health and safety concerns about legalizing marijuana, such as the inability to give accurate sobriety tests for those driving high. “This equation has many different variables. It can actually affect people’s lives,” he said.
A majority of New Jerseyans (53 percent) support legalizing and taxing marijuana, according to a Rutgers-Eagleton poll released in December.
The one-page memo from Sessions does not specifically mention states that have legalized marijuana. It says federal prosecutors should consider the seriousness of the crime and law enforcement priorities of the attorney general, among other factors, when deciding which marijuana activities to prosecute.
“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,” Sessions said.
In a statement, state Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said: “We will continue to work towards legalization and will resist any attempts by Attorney General Sessions or the Trump administration to impose its will on the states and to stop the progress that has been made to reform the prohibition-type mentality that criminalizes the use of marijuana.”
U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, who has sponsored a bill to legalize marijuana at the federal level, called the move by Sessions a “backwards policy.”
“Sessions’ determination to revive the failed War on Drugs is fiscally wasteful, morally bankrupt, unjust—and won’t make us safer,” Booker wrote on Twitter. “This backwards policy is wrong for America, and on the wrong side of history.”
Update (6:00 p.m.): Sweeney issued a statement condemning the move by Sessions and pledging to push ahead on efforts to legalize marijuana in New Jersey. His comments have been added to this story.