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How The Attorney General’s Decision To Tighten Federal Marijuana Policy Affects Maine

Haven Daley
Associated Press File
Customers buy products at the Harvest Medical Marijuana Dispensary in San Francisco in April 2016.

The Trump administration announced Thursday that it will rescind Obama-era rules that went easy on enforcement of federal marijuana laws. The news dismays supporters of Maine’s law, and opponents say it will reopen the debate.

Since 2013, the Justice Department has told federal law enforcement not to interfere with legal and regulated marijuana markets established by individual states, such as the one Maine voters approved last year and that lawmakers are now trying to implement. But Attorney General Jeff Sessions says he is rescinding the policy and returning to previous rules that encouraged U.S. law enforcement to disrupt criminal organizations and tackle the growing drug crisis.

“Very disappointed — this wasn’t the kind of message he gave to senators before his confirmation,” says David Boyer, the Maine political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, which led the campaign for legalizing marijuana in Maine. “It’s not what Trump said on the campaign trail either.”

Boyer says that the policy switch will likely further stall development of a recreational pot industry in Maine. He notes that legislative attempts to implement the law have bogged down in disagreements between the Legislature and Gov. Paul LePage.

“It’s a real fear because the governor said in his veto message that he was waiting to hear from the feds about their marijuana policy. So this is perfect cover for the governor to veto the next bill that gets to his desk,” he says.

A spokeswoman for LePage says he is waiting for more information from the Trump administration before weighing in on the new policy.

One prominent opponent of the legalization in Maine, Scott Gagnon of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, says Sessions has “recalibrated” the debate in Maine.

“Frankly I think it’s going to open up a lot of conversation about what’s the best way to move forward. It probably doesn’t make sense to move forward with robust commercialization knowing that this is now in play. So I would hope we’ll have a smart conversation about how to move forward and that we’re measured,” he says.

It’s still unclear exactly how the new policy may play out, with individual U.S. attorneys likely to have discretion over enforcement levels. Maine’s District Attorney, Halsey Frank, a Trump appointee, could not be reached for comment.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine’s 1st District says she and colleagues are working to get more information, but she believes there will be some pushback on Capitol Hill, and from both sides of the aisle.

“I think we’ve all seen in Maine, it’s complicated enough for a state to figure out how to handle legalization of marijuana. But to have the attorney general weighing in and complicating this, which they have been doing in states around the country, just makes it that much worse,” she says.

Pingree, who says she supported legalizing recreational marijuana in Maine, says it’s a matter best left to the states. She says lawmakers of both major parties have supported measures to restrict funding for enforcement of federal marijuana laws, and to ease laws that discourage bank participation in legalized state marijuana marketplaces.

“And I just think there’s a fair amount of support in Congress to attempt to prevent the Justice Department to interfere with states,” she says.

Pingree says congressional support for medical marijuana laws — which include many more states, including Maine — should be even stronger.

Independent U.S. Sen. Angus King of Maine issued a statement saying that each state should have the ability to implement policy that reflects its citizens’ wishes. Other members of the delegation could not immediately be reached for comment.

In a press release issued Thursday, a spokesperson for Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins said Collins recognizes the value of medical marijuana in certain cases, and in the past has supported amendments to prevent the Department of Justice from interfering with states’ medical marijuana laws.

“There is, however, considerable scientific and medical evidence of the detrimental impact that marijuana can have on the brain development of otherwise healthy teenagers,” the statement said. “Congress and the Department of Justice should review the Controlled Substances Act, which generally prohibits growing, distributing or using marijuana, in light of current medical evidence as well as actions taken by states.”

The co-chair of a special legislative panel that’s working on a bill to implement Maine’s recreational marijuana law says a public hearing scheduled for Friday on its latest proposal will go ahead as planned.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.