Hundreds of demonstrators rally at 20th Street and Massachusetts Ave in northwest D.C. in support of federally legalizing marijuana and in protest of Sen. Jeff Sessions, newly elected President Trump's pick of attorney general, on Jan 20. (Travis Riddick/The Washington Informer)
Hundreds of demonstrators rally at 20th Street and Massachusetts Avenue in northwest D.C. in support of federally legalizing marijuana and in protest of Sen. Jeff Sessions, newly elected President Trump's pick for attorney general, on Jan 20. (Travis Riddick/The Washington Informer)

It may surprise many to know that in states where recreational marijuana is taxed and regulated, such as Oregon, Colorado and California, marijuana isn’t actually “legal” — at least not federally. Federal law enforcement can technically break up the party at any time.

Since the 1970s, marijuana has been classified as a “Schedule I” drug, a designation indicating Congress’s official view that marijuana is dangerous with no medicinal value. In most cases, possession, sale and cultivation can result in felony offenses with mandatory minimum sentences if caught by federal authorities.

This 50-year-old policy is consistent with that of Jeff Sessions, the current attorney general, or “top cop” of the United States, who once asserted that second offenses for marijuana trafficking could be punishable by the death penalty. He has since had a change of heart.

Sessions’ appointment signifies a long-looming danger for unsuspecting pot users in the eight marijuana-decriminalized states, including D.C. He is expected to depart from the Obama-era tradition of deprioritizing the enforcement of federal marijuana laws.

In 2014, under President Obama, the former Deputy Attorney General James Cole issued guidelines advising the Justice Department to, in short, leave enforcing and prosecuting marijuana offenses to the states.

Sessions has harshly denounced these directives, and those guidelines can be withdrawn at any time. If he chooses to, Sessions could direct the Justice Department to pursue anyone participating in the marijuana industry in so-called legal states.

Although he is limited by number of personnel, Sessions could order raids of state-legal marijuana farms and dispensaries since they are considered to be criminal enterprises under federal law.

So given that the “Cole guidelines” are temporary, recreational weed use anywhere in the country remains unprotected.

Furthermore, considering proximity to D.C., federal land percentage, and Congress’ continued interference in District affairs, D.C. residents could face the brunt of this administration’s policy sooner and more sharply than others. As D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton put it, “D.C. is at greater risk.”

18 square miles of the city, or roughly one-third, is federal land, and federal law enforcement is more present here than in any other area.

Additionally, with Congress’ unique capability to interfere in D.C. law and budget affairs, D.C. faces a unique risk to be made an example out of, as it has in the past, and suffer a Capitol crackdown on weed.

However, one budget amendment protects medical marijuana users from prosecution. In 2014, Congress approved the bipartisan Rohrabacher-Farr budget amendment, which prohibits Justice Department funds from being used to prevent states from implementing medical cannabis laws.

This was upheld in the U.S. vs. McIntosh decision, where the judge held that prosecutions against marijuana users in compliance with state medical cannabis laws cannot proceed unless a violation of state law is proven. In other words, the federal government cannot prosecute unless the user broke state or district medical cannabis law.

This amendment, however, must be renewed each fiscal year in order to remain in effect. The most recent extension of this medical cannabis protection expires April 28.

If Congress allows it to expire, federal officials could arrest medical patients who buy prescription marijuana to ease their suffering. Authorities could also issue directives to prosecutors to pursue harsher sentences, and Sessions could sue states that have voted to legalize.

De-scheduling marijuana — that is, regulating marijuana like alcohol or tobacco — is arguably the easiest solution to clashes between state and federal authorities over marijuana laws.

Marijuana reform advocates have long called for Congress to officially take marijuana off the list of “Schedule 1” substances.

On Monday, April 24, one such advocate, DCMJ, is planning a mass civil disobedience at 4:20 p.m. on the east side of the U.S. Capitol. This local pro-cannabis organization initially proposed Initiative 71 that decriminalized possession and small-time pot growth.

Regardless of medicinal or harmless recreational benefits, most District voters seem more excited about the decrease in heavy policing and disproportionate arrests.
African-Americans were eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites in D.C.

In 2016, there were only seven marijuana-related arrests, down over 99 percent from 2015.

WI Guest Author

This correspondent is a guest contributor to The Washington Informer.

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