Trump Administration Takes Aim at Marijuana Legalization Movement

Author: David B. Weisenfeld, XpertHR Legal Editor

January 11, 2018

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has rescinded an Obama-era policy that instructed federal prosecutors to take a hands-off approach in states where marijuana is legal. While the drug is illegal under federal law, eight states plus the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana use to varying degrees and 29 states have legalized medical marijuana use.

In a Justice Department memo, Sessions said, "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 and the ability of our local, state, tribal, and federal law enforcement partners to carry out this mission." As a result, Sessions directed all US Attorneys to use established principles to pursue prosecutions that stem what he called "the tide of the drug crisis."

This policy shift was announced just days after commercial marijuana sales became legal in California. Democrats and some Republicans criticized the announcement. Republican Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado threatened to withhold support for confirming Justice Department nominees.

Jackson Lewis employment attorney Kathryn Russo told XpertHR it is not clear what this development means for employers because Attorney General Sessions did not provide specifics. "All we can do is wait to see what happens next," said Russo. "Those employers who have 'zero-tolerance' drug policies regarding marijuana were probably glad to hear the Attorney General views marijuana as an illegal and dangerous drug. However, I am still advising employers to exercise caution in those states that prohibit employment discrimination against medical marijuana users until we see how this plays out."

The memo does not directly mention how prosecutors should treat medical marijuana. The marijuana market in states where medical or recreational marijuana is legal is estimated at $6 billion, a figure that had been expected to grow significantly in 2018.