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Attempts To Strengthen Enforcement Of Federal Pot Laws Face Constraints


The Trump administration is trying to give prosecutors more leeway to enforce federal marijuana laws, and that's drawing a lot of criticism from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, especially in the growing number of states that are moving to legalize pot. But as NPR's Nathan Rott reports, there are still constraints that could hold prosecutors back.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: On New Year's Day, there was a long line here on Santa Monica Boulevard as Californians queued up for their first opportunity to legally buy recreational marijuana in the state. Days later and just hours after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced his department's new approach, saying, quote, "marijuana activity is a serious crime," that line still stretches down the block. Tim Fister is near the front and says that's just Sessions rattling his saber. He is not concerned at all.

TIM FISTER: There's a billion dollars at stake in taxes in California. They're going to stop that? Money talks.

ROTT: And money...

UNIDENTIFIED CASHIER: Fifteen, 16, seven cents.


UNIDENTIFIED CASHIER: You're all set. Take care.

ROTT: ...Is certainly pouring in. Colorado alone has brought in more than half a billion dollars in taxes and fees since legalization. And Daniel Yi, a spokesperson for MedMen, the storefront here in California, says that tax money is one of the reasons he's not terribly worried about the Fed's new direction. Don't get him wrong - the news isn't great, he says.

DANIEL YI: It creates a certain amount of uncertainty, I guess, from a business perspective.

ROTT: And Yi says that has made some investors more skittish, but he doesn't think it's going to slow down the fast-growing, multibillion-dollar cannabis industry.

YI: Until you get one of those 93 U.S. attorneys, prosecutors, say this is what my office stance is going to be and this is how that's going to impact whatever district in Arkansas, or whatever district in Florida or in California, it's just speculation.

ROTT: And we've already got a bit of a sense of how those U.S. attorneys are interpreting the change. Nearly a dozen U.S. attorneys have said they won't change their strategies or that they'll continue to use long established principles to choose which cases to pursue. John Walsh, a former U.S. attorney for the district of Colorado, says prosecutors will likely target the same criminal behavior as before - a business with gang or cartel connections that sells to youth or across state lines.

JOHN WALSH: What this sends, though, is a message from the department in D.C. that being more aggressive is something that they're going to back if you choose to do it.

ROTT: Even then though, Walsh says, there are limitations.

WALSH: There are limits on the resources you have available.

ROTT: In terms of time, money and federal agents, when there are other priorities like the country's opioid crisis. There's the possibility that local or state law enforcement might not be all that willing to help out in a bust. And then there's the challenge of finding a jury that would convict a state-licensed cannabis business. In Colorado, 56 percent of voters chose to legalize recreational use.

WALSH: So statistically, approximately, you'd have to assume that in any criminal prosecution you brought in federal court on a marijuana case that maybe seven or 12 jurors also had voted to legalize marijuana.

ROTT: And it's the same nationally. The majority of Americans support legalization, according to Gallup, and that includes a majority of Republicans. Which brings us to the political challenge of prosecuting a state-licensed business. This is the rare issue that doesn't entirely fall on political lines. Let's take Nevada, a purple state. Tick Segerblom, a Democratic state lawmaker and marijuana advocate, says, yes, it would be hugely disruptive if the Feds came after a business in, say, Vegas.

TICK SEGERBLOM: But, I mean, I don't think that they would want to do that because a lot of these guys are Republicans. The owners are big-time Republicans.

ROTT: That doesn't mean it won't happen. Segerblom and others say it's hard to know what to expect, but that's always been the case with the marijuana industry. Nathan Rott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.