The Guardian

 Jeff Sessions said federal prosecutors ‘haven’t been working small marijuana cases before, they are not going to be working them now’. Photograph: Carolyn Kaster/AP

Federal prosecutors will not take on small-time marijuana cases, despite the Trump justice department’s decision to lift an Obama-era policy that discouraged authorities from cracking down on the trade in states where the drug is legal, Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, said on Saturday.

Federal law enforcement lacks the resources to take on “routine cases” and will continue to focus on gangs and larger conspiracies, Sessions told students after a speech at Georgetown law school.

In January, the Trump administration threw the burgeoning marijuana legalization movement into uncertainty by reversing the largely hands-off approach of the Obama administration, saying federal prosecutors should instead handle marijuana cases however they see fit.

The Obama-era policy allowed the trade to flourish, with eight states legalizing marijuana for recreational use.

The reversal under Trump added to confusion about whether it’s OK to grow, buy or use marijuana in states where it is legal, since long-standing federal law prohibits it. And it caused concern that prosecutors would feel empowered to jail individuals for marijuana possession.

“I am not going to tell Colorado or California or someone else that possession of marijuana is legal under United States law,” Sessions said. But, he added, federal prosecutors “haven’t been working small marijuana cases before, they are not going to be working them now”.

Of particular interest are problems that federal authorities have tried for years to tackle, such as illegal marijuana-growing operations on national parklands and gangs that peddle marijuana along with more harmful drugs.

Some law enforcement officials in legal states argue the legal trade has caused unintended problems like black-market marijuana growing and dealing by people who don’t even try to conform to the legal framework.

It remains to be seen whether prosecutors will seek to punish state-sanctioned businesses. Some have indicated they have no plans to do so.

“Those are the kinds of things each one of those US attorneys will decide how to handle,” Sessions said.

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