Justice Department fuels anxiety over medical pot in Iowa, other states

Programs like Iowa's appear to not be targets, at least for now

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, shown at a November hearing before the House Oversight Committee, has rescinded several Obama-era directives that discouraged enforcement of federal marijuana laws in states that had legalized the substance. (Bill O’Leary/Washington Post)
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, shown at a November hearing before the House Oversight Committee, has rescinded several Obama-era directives that discouraged enforcement of federal marijuana laws in states that had legalized the substance. (Bill O’Leary/Washington Post)

WASHINGTON — In ending an Obama administration directive that provided legal shelter for marijuana sales in the handful of states that allow recreational pot, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Thursday added uncertainty to the fate of medical marijuana programs enacted by states like Iowa.

The Justice Department’s move was met with a bipartisan backlash from lawmakers in states where marijuana is now sold legally to any adult who wants to buy it — including California, the most recent.

“It is the mission of the Department of Justice to enforce the laws of the United States,” Sessions said in a statement, which added that the Obama-era policy that directed federal prosecutors not to target state marijuana businesses “undermines the rule of law and the ability of our local, state, tribal, and federal law enforcement partners to carry out this mission.”

Six states have legalized recreational use of marijuana: California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Colorado and Alaska. Voters in Maine and Massachusetts have also approved legalization measures, but they have not taken effect.

Twenty-nine states plus the District of Columbia allow marijuana for medical purposes.

Last spring, the GOP-controlled Iowa Legislature greatly expanded the state’s fledgling medical cannabis program to cover more chronic conditions and — for the first time — to permit medical marijuana products to be grown, manufactured and sold in Iowa. The state is ramping up now to launch the program in 2019.

At a forum Thursday in Des Moines about the upcoming legislative session, Gov. Kim Reynolds and Statehouse leaders faced questions about what Sessions’ action means for Iowa.

“I don’t think the intent is to go after medical marijuana,” the Republican governor said, although she planned to review the action.

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House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, said she thinks Iowa’s medical marijuana law is written with such low THC limit that “hopefully” it won’t be affected.

The state’s newly licensed medical marijuana manufacturer, MedPharm Iowa, said in a statement it was “disappointed” in Sessions’ action. “With this announcement, MedPharm Iowa is actively monitoring the situation and will continue to evaluate as more information becomes available,” the statement said.

The new Justice Department policy does not put medical marijuana at risk in the same way it does recreational pot — at least for now.

A law passed by Congress in late 2014 limits the federal government from interfering with medical marijuana sales in states that allow it.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over federal cases in California and eight other Western states, has interpreted that law to bar any prosecutions in medical pot cases in that jurisdiction.

Sessions has sought to have that federal ban lifted, and Justice Department officials suggested their new policy could be extended to threaten medical pot, as well, if the law changes or if the 9th Circuit’s interpretation is overturned. They left unclear whether they might pursue prosecutions of medical pot in states outside the 9th Circuit’s jurisdiction.

Moreover, the law itself is in limbo — extended only temporarily basis as Congress passes stopgap measures to avoid a government shutdown.

The protection could expire completely after Jan. 19, when the latest stopgap measure ends.

Sessions’ Justice Department has always taken a hard line on marijuana, even effectively blocking the Drug Enforcement Administration from approving more than two dozen requests to grow marijuana for research.

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Sessions has said he did not believe marijuana should be legalized, even suggesting last year that medical marijuana had been “hyped, maybe too much.”

Justice Department officials said the policy reversal won’t necessarily mean a rush of new prosecutions. But they made clear their intent was to end the safe harbor for the industry to operate in and increase the level of unease for growers and dispensary owners.

Erin Jordan of The Gazette, Erin Murphy of The Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau, the Tribune Washington Bureau and the Washington Post contributed.

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