The U.S. Justice Department on Thursday rescinded an Obama administration policy that had eased enforcement of federal marijuana laws in states that have legalized the drug, instead giving federal prosecutors wide latitude on pursuing criminal charges.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, known as a strong opponent of legalizing marijuana, overturned the policy but stopped short of directly encouraging U.S. prosecutors to bring marijuana cases.
His action drew immediate condemnation from marijuana legalization advocates and some lawmakers in both parties who said it trampled on the rights of voters in states where the drug is now legal and created uncertainty about how strictly federal drugs laws will be enforced.
The administration's move also raised questions about how the new policy will impact the burgeoning marijuana industry in places like California and Colorado.
The policy put in place under Democratic former President Barack Obama, outlined by then-Deputy Attorney General James Cole, recognized marijuana as a "dangerous drug," but said the Justice Department expected states and localities that authorized various uses of the drug to effectively regulate and police it.
"The Cole memo, as interpreted, created a safe harbor for the marijuana industry to operate in these states, and I think there is a belief that that is inconsistent with what the federal law says," said a Justice Department official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.
"Marijuana is still against federal law," the official added.
Under the new policy, outlined in a one-page memo by Sessions, federal prosecutors around the country will have discretion to enforce the federal ban on marijuana in their own districts.
The change under Republican President Donald Trump's administration comes just days after California formally launched the world's largest regulated commercial market for recreational marijuana.
There has been a surge in legalization of marijuana in U.S. states in recent years. Besides California, other states that permit the regulated sale of marijuana for recreational use include Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Nevada. Massachusetts and Maine are on track to follow suit later this year.
Among companies that have invested in the industry, Scotts Miracle-Gro, a gardening product manufacturer, has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to acquire companies that sell soil, lighting, fertilizer and other products to marijuana growers. Shares in the company dropped 3.8 percent to $104.54 after the news of the policy shift, before paring losses later in the morning. Several Canadian marijuana-related stocks also fell sharply.
The policy being reversed had sought to provide more clarity on how prosecutors would enforce federal laws that ban marijuana in states that have legalized it for medicinal or recreational use.
Sessions has made no secret about his disdain for marijuana. He has said the drug is harmful and should not be legalized, and has also called it a gateway drug for opioid addicts.
A task force created under a February 2017 executive order by Trump and comprised of prosecutors and other law enforcement officials was supposed to study marijuana enforcement, along with many other policy areas, and issue recommendations.
Its recommendations were due in July 2017, but the Justice Department has not made public what the task force determined was appropriate for marijuana.
Marijuana advocates criticized the planned change to policy.
"Jeff Sessions is acting on his warped desire to return America to the failed beliefs of the 'Just Say No' and Reefer Madness eras," said Erik Altieri, the executive director of the pro-marijuana group NORML. "This action flies in the face of sensible public policy and broad public opinion."
Republican Senator Cory Gardner, who represents Colorado where marijuana is legal, also criticized the move, saying on Twitter that the Justice Department was trampling on the will and rights of voters.
"This reported action directly contradicts what Attorney General Sessions told me prior to his confirmation," he wrote.
Gardner added that he would take all steps necessary to fight the measure, including possibly holding up the Senate from voting on pending Justice Department nominees. The department still has a long line of nominees waiting to be confirmed, including the heads of the criminal, civil and national security divisions.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Will Dunham and Frances Kerry)