The momentum behind America's marijuana movement has been unstoppable. Illinois and 28 other states have legalized medical marijuana. Eight states now allow the sale of recreational pot; the latest is California, where proponents expect the recreational use market will become the world's largest.
On Thursday, however, the movement ran into a big buzzkill, courtesy of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Sessions rescinded an Obama-era policy that discouraged federal prosecutors from pursuing marijuana-related charges in states where pot had been legalized. Sessions' move effectively gives those prosecutors free rein to aggressively enforce the federal government's prohibition of the use and sale of pot.
How the move plays out is anybody's guess. Federal prosecutors could begin raiding marijuana dispensaries, and even go after users. Or they could follow Colorado U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer's lead: He said Thursday he would make no changes to the way he handles marijuana cases in his state.
As a U.S. senator from Alabama, Sessions strongly opposed marijuana legalization. He equates the drug with heroin, has blamed pot for a rising tide of violence, and has said that medical use of marijuana has been "hyped, maybe too much." It's not even clear whether his views hew to those of his boss, President Donald Trump, who in a July 2016 interview said that, if elected, he would not advocate a federal crackdown on states that had legalized recreational marijuana sales. "I think it's up to the states," Trump said at the time.
What Sessions hopes to accomplish remains unclear. So far, the only effect he's had is to sow a good deal of confusion. In states where recreational pot sales are legal, do sellers, buyers and users face arrest? Is the medical marijuana industry vulnerable? Would someone smoking pot as treatment face jail time?
There is indeed a disconnect between the federal ban on marijuana and the laws in states that allow its sale and use — whether for recreational or medical purposes. But there's a way to bridge that gap. Congress should enact legislation that gives states the right to move ahead with recreational and/or medical marijuana laws if they choose. That would leave it up to each state and its voters to decide whether legalization works for them.
We mention voters specifically because they're playing a role in liberalizing policy. Every state that allows recreational use got approval from voters first. And in many states that enacted medical marijuana laws, voters backed the measures through referendums.
In Illinois, a bill pending in the General Assembly would make it legal to smoke pot, as long as a user is 21 or over and possesses no more than an ounce. Driving under the influence of marijuana would still be illegal, as would smoking it in public. If Illinois lawmakers want to enact that or other marijuana proposals, they would benefit from a federal policy that clarifies, rather than confuses, what state governments can do.
Attorneys general may have strong pro or con personal views about pot, but their job isn't to tailor enforcement priorities in ways that approach law-making. Members of Congress have put law enforcement in an awkward spot by looking away as states diverge from federal statute. Facts on the ground suggest that many Americans want to legalize medical and recreational use of marijuana. They should have the right to do so without wondering what the next U.S. attorney general will want.