WASHINGTON – Even as a series of states legalized the recreational use of marijuana, the possession, use or sale of the drug remained a federal crime.
Still, the Justice Department, under President Barack Obama, took a hands-off approach.
That changed Thursday. Attorney General Jeff Sessions revoked an Obama-era policy that was deferential to states' permissive marijuana laws. Sessions is leaving it up to federal prosecutors in states that allow drug sales and use to decide whether to crack down on the marijuana trade.
The move by Sessions has generated outrage among advocates for legal marijuana as well as some conservatives who believe the federal government shouldn't overrule the wishes of state government on issues like this. It's also generated confusion about what the policy might mean for marijuana users, sellers and states that collect taxes from pot sales.
Some questions and answers about the new policy:
HOW WILL THIS AFFECT STATES THAT HAVE LEGALIZED RECREATIONAL MARIJUANA?
The real-world impact of Sessions' decision remains to be seen. Justice Department officials wouldn't say whether the move is intended for federal prosecutors to specifically target marijuana shops and legal growers. And Sessions is giving broad discretion to U.S. attorneys to decide how aggressively to enforce marijuana law, among all the other demands on their time and limited resources.
But rescinding the Obama policy could have a chilling effect on the burgeoning marijuana legalization movement. And it will undoubtedly add to existing confusion over use and enforcement.
WILL THIS AFFECT MEDICAL MARIJUANA?
That's not clear. A federal law blocks the Justice Department from interfering with medical marijuana programs in states where it is allowed. Justice Department officials said they would follow the law, but would not preclude the possibility of medical-marijuana related prosecutions.
WILL THIS MAKE IT HARDER FOR BUSINESSES THAT SELL MARIJUANA?
Yes. Many banks already want nothing to do with pot money for fear it could expose them to legal trouble from the federal government. The new uncertainty about how prosecutors will deal with this will only make it harder.
WHY IS SESSIONS DOING THIS NOW?
Sessions' announcement came just three days after a legalization law went into effect in California. But officials denied the timing of the move was connected to the opening of California's sales, which are projected to bring in $1 billion annually in tax revenue within several years. Sessions has railed against marijuana for years, including as an Alabama senator. A task force he convened had been looking at whether to change the Obama policy, so the move is not especially surprising.
CAN CONGRESS REVERSE SESSIONS' ACTION -- AND WOULD LAWMAKERS BE INCLINED TO DO SO?
Lawmakers can't necessarily undo an internal Justice Department policy decision. But they can push legislation to protect marijuana sales. And they might. Republican Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado said he plans to reach out to other legislators from states that have legalized recreational marijuana -- Alaska, California, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon and Washington -- to seek congressional protection for those programs.