Uniting States of Marijuana: The country's evolving laws on cannabis
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said he is worried about how a new directive from the Justice Department could affect marijuana programs around the country, including Illinois’ medical marijuana program.
“I’m worried, and I think a number of people are concerned about how far Attorney General (Jeff) Sessions is going to go,” said Durbin, D-Illinois. “In his defense, there was little or no clarity under the previous administration, because we have this classification of marijuana as a narcotic in Washington with all sorts of restrictive laws, and in the states just the opposite is true. They’re selling it over the counter for recreational purposes and for medical purposes.”
Last week, Sessions lifted an Obama-era policy that kept federal authorities from cracking down on the pot trade in states where the drug is legal. Sessions will now leave it up to federal prosecutors to decide what to do when state rules are in conflict with federal drug law.
The Sessions memo “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.”
Durbin, who briefly spoke about the issue before an event Monday in Swansea, said he thinks marijuana programs around the country are in question, and the issue needs to be resolved.
“To think we have six or eight states that have legalized marijuana for recreational purposes and even more for medical purposes, and Washington is singing out of a different hymn book. It’s not good,” Durbin said. “We’ve got to decide. Are we going to acknowledge states’ rights in this area or are we going to demand a federal standard? I think the states and the referenda in those states are moving us in a direction to at least use marijuana for medical purposes.”
To think we have six or eight states that have legalized marijuana for recreational purposes and even more for medical purposes and Washington is singing out of a different hymn book. It’s not good. We’ve got to decide. Are we going to acknowledge state’s rights in this area or are we going to demand a federal standard? I think the states and the referenda in those states are moving us in a direction to at least use marijuana for medical purposes.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Springfield
It is not clear how the Justice Department’s change might affect states where marijuana is legal for medical purposes. The Rohrabacher-Farr amendment 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 prosecutions related to medical marijuana.
“In deciding which marijuana activities to prosecute under these laws with the Department’s finite resources, prosecutors should follow the well-established principles that govern all federal prosecutions,” Sessions wrote in his memo.
Donald Boyce, the U.S. Attorney for Southern Illinois, declined to comment.
“The impact remains to be seen,” said Divya Little, a public information officer for the Illinois Department of Public Health. “How federal prosecutors select which cases to prosecute was, and remains, a matter solely within their discretion, regardless of any state laws or policies.”
In deciding which marijuana activities to prosecute under these laws with the Department’s finite resources, prosecutors should follow the well-established principles that govern all federal prosecutions.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions
There are two medical marijuana dispensaries in the metro-east: one in Collinsville and one in Sauget.
Scott Abbott, the chief operating officer of HCI Alternatives, which has a location in Collinsville, said he thinks the state’s medical marijuana program won’t be affected. He cited the federal Rohrabacher amendment which prevents money from being spent to prosecute medical marijuana use.
“At the end of the day, there are no absolute assurances,” Abbott said. “It is and always has been a schedule one (substance), but they are protected under state — sanctioned programs. From our perspective, it’s business as usual.”
Abbott has told staff to tell patients that the change in the office decision doesn’t change anything other than giving “U.S. attorneys the ability to do those types of investigations for those who aren’t operating properly,” he said.
State Sen.Bill Haine, D-Alton, who was one of the proponents of the state’s medical marijuana program, said the Justice Department’s decision doesn’t sound bad.
“It sounds like (Sessions is) respecting the local efforts like Illinois has to implement a use of marijuana that is not per se illegal, and he’s leaving it up to the U.S. attorneys to exercise their discretion. That’s all good,” the former Madison County state’s attorney said.
“If we have reasonable U.S. attorneys, which I would hope would be the case, he’s saying to them, use your judgment, which I don’t have any problem with.”
On Friday, Democratic gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker came out in favor legalizing marijuana, saying it would help push criminal justice reform, increase consumer safety and increase state revenue.
“There is an abundance of evidence that shows we can legalize marijuana in Illinois in a safe way,” Pritzker said. “There is an abundance of evidence that shows the real benefits this would have on our state. Most importantly, it is a step forward in reforming our broken criminal justice system. Criminalizing marijuana hasn’t made our communities safer. What it’s done is disproportionately impact black and brown communities. The criminalization of cannabis never has been and never will be enforced fairly, and it’s time to bring that to an end.”
The Associated Press Contributed to this article.