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Trump Administration Taking Step That Could Threaten Pot Legalization Movement 

click to enlarge The Trump administration is freeing up federal prosecutors to pursue marijuana cases. - (TOM BRENNER/THE NEW YORK TIMES
  • (Tom Brenner/The New York Times
  • The Trump administration is freeing up federal prosecutors to pursue marijuana cases.

By CHARLIE SAVAGE and JACK HEALY
© 2018 New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration on Thursday will free federal prosecutors to more aggressively enforce marijuana laws, effectively threatening to undermine the legalization movement that has spread to six states, most recently California.

The Justice Department is expected to rescind an Obama-era policy of discouraging federal prosecutors from bringing charges of marijuana-related crimes in states that had legalized sales of the drug.

It was not immediately clear whether the administration intends to carry out a federal crackdown on marijuana dispensaries, or is merely rattling its saber. The Associated Press first reported the announcement, and a government official familiar with the matter confirmed that the change would be announced later Thursday.

The move is likely to increase the confusion surrounding whether it is legal to sell, buy or possess marijuana in the United States. Federal law has long prohibited those activities, and in 2013, after voters in Colorado and Washington state voted to decriminalize marijuana for recreational use, the Justice Department deliberated about how to handle the resulting disconnect between state and federal law.

Ultimately, the Obama administration decided not to sue such states, and the Justice Department issued a policy memo instructing federal prosecutors to de-prioritize marijuana-related prosecutions in those states — except in certain cases, such as when there were sales to children or gang-related activity.

The federal government’s hands-off approach allowed a new industry to flourish in states that had decided to legalize and regulate marijuana use and sales for recreational and medical use. In Colorado, one of the first states to broadly legalize the drug for adult use, marijuana sales now top $1 billion each year and thousands of people work in the industry, in jobs ranging from “bud trimmers” to marijuana tour guides for out-of-state visitors.

Huge grow warehouses sprouted up inside old industrial neighborhoods, and companies that produce marijuana-laced candies, infusions and drinks have large-scale production facilities — all of which may now have a bull’s-eye on their backs.

“I do expect to see the larger investors and businesses targeted,” said Kevin Sabet, a prominent critic of legalized marijuana and former drug-control policy official in the Obama administration, who praised the step. “I’m not sure whether local mom-and-pop marijuana shops will be affected.”

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