Lansing — Republicans and Democrats vying to be Michigan’s next attorney general are assailing U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions for opening the door to possible prosecution of medical marijuana patients and businesses operating legally under state law.
Sessions last week reversed non-intervention policies that had discouraged federal prosecutors from cracking down on pot possession and cultivation in states where medical or recreational marijuana is allowed despite federal prohibition.
“I believe he needs to back off,” state House Speaker Tom Leonard told The Detroit News, calling marijuana a states’ rights issue that voters here and in other states have already or may soon decide.
“I don’t believe the federal government has any right coming in here to try to enforce marijuana laws, and I believe it ought to be left up to the state.”
The DeWitt Republican is the latest candidate for state attorney general to speak out against the move by Sessions, appointed last year by GOP President Donald Trump. Democrats Dana Nessel of Plymouth Township and Pat Miles of Grand Rapids last week lambasted Sessions.
State Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker, a Lawton Republican competing with Leonard for the GOP attorney general nomination, did not directly criticize Sessions but said she believes “the people of Michigan should decide what is best for Michigan.”
Michigan voters approved medical marijuana use in 2008, and the state’s Republican-led Legislature last year approved new regulations allowing dispensaries and other medical pot businesses in communities that want them. Separately, a group seeking to legalize recreational use of marijuana has submitted roughly 365,000 signatures to the state in an attempt to put the issue on Michigan’s statewide ballot in 2018.
Sessions’ decision to abandon non-intervention policies adopted under former President Barack Obama could have a wide-ranging impact across the country. Forty-six states have some form of medical marijuana law, and eight allow for recreational use of the drug, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
But the federal policy shift will not have any direct impact on state enforcement, said Andrea Bitely, a spokeswoman for current Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, a Republican who led the opposition campaign against the medical law in 2008 and is now running for governor.
“We will continue to enforce the Michigan medical marijuana statute, specifically related to large-scale violations,” Bitely said, noting state prosecutors usually focus on illegal traffickers, not individual users.
The Sessions directive could allow more intervention by federal prosecutors, including new interim U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan Matthew Schneider, a Schuette deputy who Sessions promoted last week.
In a statement provided to The News on Tuesday, Schneider said his top priorities include combatting violent crime, gangs, corruption and terrorism.
“This office will review marijuana cases in terms of where those cases fit within our priorities and our limited federal resources,” he said. “In every criminal case, we will rely upon the Justice Department's long-established principles of federal prosecution as all U.S. Attorneys have done since 1980.”
In his memo issued last week, Sessions said he was reasserting federal laws that “reflect Congress’ determination that marijuana is a dangerous drug and that marijuana activity is a serious crime.”
“It is the mission of the Department of Justice to enforce the laws of the United States, and the previous issuance of guidance undermines the rule of law,” Sessions added in a statement.
Marijuana is expected to be a hot topic for political candidates in Michigan, where voters may have the chance to decide the fate of an initiative that would legalize possession, recreational use and retail sales.
Nessel, a vocal advocate for recreational legalization, called Sessions’ reversal “horrifying” and said Michigan needs an attorney general who will stand up to “the Trump agenda.”
“It is absolutely a gross display of federal overreach for Sessions to subvert states’ rights and return to failed policies that harm families, fill prisons with non-violent people, cost states billions of dollars they don’t have to spare and do nothing to combat the real drug epidemic facing this nation,” Nessel said in a statement.
Miles, who is competing with Nessel for the Democratic nomination, called Sessions’ decision “an enormous step backward” that “totally disrespects the will of the people of Michigan” who chose to allow medical pot.
Miles has not taken a firm stance on marijuana legalization but said he would enforce any pot law approved by Michigan voters. Leonard, a Republican, is staking out a similar position but is publicly opposed to the potential ballot proposal.
“Do I personally support the legalization of recreational use marijuana? Absolutely not,” Leonard said. “But if the citizens of this state, if they choose to pass that during the next election cycle, then certainly as the next attorney general I would do everything I can to ensure the will of the people is upheld.”
Schuitmaker, in a statement provided to The News, said she also would enforce state law and hopes that medical marijuana use will not be a top priority for federal prosecutors that oversee terrorism, immigration, corruption and civil rights cases.
“The federal government has been inconsistent about enforcement for many years and should decide on a clear and consistent standard,” Schuitmaker said.