(HELENA) States that have legalized marijuana for recreational or medical use – including Montana – are facing new uncertainty. The U.S. Justice Department has decided to end a policy discouraging federal prosecutors from filing marijuana-related charges in those states.
Marijuana remains illegal under federal law. But during the Obama administration, the Justice Department adopted a series of memos saying prosecutors shouldn’t focus on states that legalized it, as long as they had strong, effective regulations to keep it out of the hands of minors and stop it from being diverted for other illegal activity.
But on Thursday, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions decided to withdraw that policy. Sessions, appointed last year by President Donald Trump, has been a vocal critic of marijuana.
Sessions’ new policy will give U.S. attorneys in each state more authority to decide whether to prosecute marijuana-related cases.
In Montana, the state medical marijuana program is administered by the Department of Public Health and Human Services.
“Montana citizens have twice made it clear how they feel about this issue through the citizens’ initiative process,” said DPHHS public information officer Jon Ebelt in a statement. “Our agency intends to follow state laws so that people with debilitating medical conditions can continue to access the medicine they need.”
Medical marijuana was first legalized in Montana in 2004, when voters approved Initiative 148. In 2016, voters backed Initiative 182, which removed some additional restrictions the Montana Legislature had added to the medical marijuana program.
Last year, the Legislature approved Senate Bill 333, which increased state oversight and regulation over medical marijuana. Some supporters of SB 333 had specifically argued its provisions would help Montana comply with the Obama administration policy that has now been rescinded.
Kate Cholewa, government relations consultant for the Montana Cannabis Information Association, a lobbying organization for the marijuana industry, said Sessions’ decision ran against the will of most citizens.
“Several state representatives from states that allow for legal access are already pushing back,” she said in an email. “It is our commitment to protect medical access for Montanans with debilitating illnesses.”
A majority of states have legalized marijuana for medical uses, while eight states, along with the District of Columbia, allow recreational use.