The betting was that law-and-order Attorney General Jeff Sessions would come out against the legalized marijuana industry with guns blazing. But the task force Sessions assembled to find the best legal strategy is giving him no ammunition, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.
The Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety, a group of prosecutors and federal law enforcement officials, has come up with no new policy recommendations to advance the attorney general's aggressively anti-marijuana views. The group's report largely reiterates the current Justice Department policy on marijuana.
It encourages officials to keep studying whether to change or rescind the Obama administration's more hands-off approach to enforcement — a stance that has allowed the nation's experiment with legal pot to flourish. The report was not slated to be released publicly, but portions were obtained by the AP.
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Sessions, who has assailed marijuana as comparable to heroin and blamed it for spikes in violence, has been promising to reconsider existing pot policy since he took office six months ago. His statements have sparked both support and worry across the political spectrum as a growing number of states have worked to legalize the drug.
Threats of a federal crackdown have united liberals, who object to the human costs of a war on pot, and some conservatives, who see it as a states' rights issue. Some advocates and members of Congress had feared the task force's recommendations would give Sessions the green light to begin dismantling what has become a sophisticated, multimillion-dollar pot industry that helps fund schools, educational programs and law enforcement.
But the tepid nature of the recommendations signals just how difficult it would be to change course on pot.
Some in law enforcement support a tougher approach, but a bipartisan group of senators in March urged Sessions to uphold existing marijuana policy. Others in Congress are seeking ways to protect and promote pot businesses.
The vague recommendations may be intentional, reflecting an understanding that shutting down the entire industry is neither palatable nor possible, said John Hudak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies marijuana law and was interviewed by members of the task force.
"If they come out with a more progressive, liberal policy, the attorney general is just going to reject it. They need to convince the attorney general that the recommendations are the best they can do without embarrassing the entire department by implementing a policy that fails," he said.
The task force suggestions are not final, and Sessions is in no way bound by them. The government still has plenty of ways it can punish weed-tolerant states, including raiding pot businesses and suing states where the drug is legal, a rare but quick path to compliance. The only one who could override a drastic move by Sessions is President Donald Trump, whose personal views on marijuana remain mostly unknown.
The Justice Department declined to comment.
Rather than urging federal agents to shut down dispensaries and make mass arrests, the task force puts forth a more familiar approach.
Its report says officials should continue to oppose rules that block the Justice Department from interfering with medical marijuana programs in states where it is allowed. Sessions wrote to members of Congress in May asking them — unsuccessfully so far — to undo those protections. The Obama administration also unsuccessfully opposed those rules.
The report suggests teaming the Justice Department with Treasury officials to offer guidance to financial institutions, telling them to implement robust anti-money laundering programs and report suspicious transactions involving businesses in states where pot is legal. That is already required by federal law.
And it tells officials to develop "centralized guidance, tools and data related to marijuana enforcement," two years after the Government Accountability Office told the Justice Department it needs to better document how it's tracking the effect of marijuana legalization in the states.
Most critically, and without offering direction, it says officials "should evaluate whether to maintain, revise or rescind" a set of Obama-era memos that allowed states to legalize marijuana on the condition that officials act to keep it from migrating to places where it is still outlawed and out of the hands of criminal cartels and children. Any changes to the policy could impact the way pot-legal states operate.
The recommendations are not surprising because "there's as much evidence that Sessions intends to maintain the system and help improve upon it as there is that he intends to roll it back," said Mason Tvert, who ran Colorado's legalization campaign. He pointed to Sessions' comment during his Senate confirmation hearing that while he opposed legalization, he understood the scarcity of federal resources and "echoed" the position of his Democratic predecessors.
But in July, he sent letters to Colorado and Washington that stirred concern, asking how they would address reports they were not adequately regulating the drug.
It remains unclear how much weight Sessions might give the recommendations. He said he has been relying on them to enact policy in other areas. Apart from pot, the task force is studying a list of criminal justice issues. The overall report's executive summary says its work continues and its recommendations "do not comprehensively address every effort that the Department is planning or currently undertaking to reduce violent crime."