Feds toughen marijuana stance

When Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently signaled that federal prosecutors may once again enforce U.S. law in prosecuting people involved in the cultivation, distribution and possession of marijuana, he created uncertainty in what has become a multimillion-dollar industry in several states.

In reversing what had been a relatively hands-off prosecutorial policy under the Obama administration, Sessions on Jan. 4 described marijuana as a “dangerous drug” and “marijuana activity … a serious crime.”

But he said it would be up to individual attorneys general in the states whether to pursue prosecutions.

In Rhode Island, U.S. Attorney Stephen G. Dambruch’s office issued a statement that said he “will evaluate each matter based upon its specific facts and then rely upon the well-established principals that govern all federal prosecutions when deciding which cases to pursue.”

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The Sessions memo didn’t distinguish recreational from medicinal marijuana, which is legal in Rhode Island.

But a federal law prohibits the U.S. Department of Justice from using federal funds to prosecute the use of medical marijuana, according to Norman Birenbaum, an economic and policy analyst who oversees regulation of medical marijuana for the R.I. Department of Business Regulation.

Gov. Gina M. Raimondo, in her budget, proposes to increase to 15 (from three) the number of “compassion centers,” the outlets where people who hold medical-marijuana cards can purchase the drug. The budget expects $5.1 million from the expansion.

It’s unclear what impact Sessions’ tougher stance on marijuana use will have on Rhode Island efforts to consider the legal sale of the drug for recreational use. A joint House-Senate committee has been parsing the subject for months.

The House co-chair, Rep. Dennis M. Canario, D-Portsmouth, is a retired police officer who says the committee is still in fact-finding mode. “There are people with a lot of questions, in terms of … the upfront costs,” he said.

The Senate co-chair, Joshua Miller, D-Cranston, is a restaurant owner who last year co-sponsored a bill to legalize the sale of recreational marijuana, which Massachusetts has already done.

The Bay State has created the Cannabis Control Commission to devise regulations. Retail sale of recreational marijuana is expected to begin in July.

Miller thinks Rhode Island should mirror the Massachusetts policy, to eliminate any activity crossing state lines. But the R.I. committee, he said, is divided about whether recreational marijuana should be legal, taxed and regulated.

Miller doesn’t think the Trump administration’s directives on the issue matter much locally.

“We’ve got to forge ahead based on what we feel is better for Rhode Island,” he said. “If it’s a Trump policy, I’m not necessarily going to take it as a priority to stay consistent with it.”