Uncertainty in Alaska as Trump administration upends cannabis policy

The U.S. Department of Justice announced Thursday that it will rescind an Obama-era decision that helped open the door to commercial cannabis industries in states like Alaska.

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Now, stakeholders in Alaska are trying to figure out what comes next.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ memo Thursday morning said Justice Department officials should return to enforcing federal laws over marijuana. That upends 2013 guidance laid out in what’s called the Cole Memo, which instructed federal prosecutors to defer to state laws when it comes to cannabis. The move gave cover to states like Alaska, where voters opted to legalize highly regulated commercial cannabis industries in 2014. Since then a handful of other states have also voted to legalize recreational marijuana.

Sessions said the decision “simply directs all U.S. Attorneys to … disrupt criminal organizations, tackle the growing drug crisis, and thwart violent crime across our country.”

U.S. Attorney for Alaska Bryan Schroder issued a statement saying his office will continue enforcing rules that conform to both national and local priorities, especially combating violent crime, including when it is connected to drug trafficking.

“It’s not the best thing that could have happened to the industry, but it’s not the worst,” said Jana Weltzin, who runs a law practice that works with cannabis businesses in Alaska and the Lower 48.

Weltzin said her phone lit up Thursday with questions from clients about what the rule change means for businesses that are operating legally under state laws. In her reading of the memo, Weltzin said it leaves decisions about pressing federal marijuana charges up to prosecutors at the U.S. Attorney’s Office. That, she said, creates uncertainty within the state’s cannabis industry and could seriously deter new investment going forward.

“Basically, what this serves to do is destabilize an already (unstable) industry,” Weltzin said.

For businesses that are already selling legal cannabis, the new DOJ memo isn’t going change day-to-day operations just yet.

“So I was super disappointed, but not too surprised,” said Jane Stinson, one of the owners of Enlighten Alaska, a marijuana retail business in Anchorage.

Stinson said she has been watching federal developments closely and, for now, she plans to keep following the state’s rules, hoping federal prosecutors will focus on more serious crimes.

“It just makes no sense to me that that would be a priority when we have so many violent crimes out there,” Stinson said. “Why would the DOJ suddenly allow the Feds to go after legal marijuana businesses? It’s crazy.”

Officials in Alaska are also displeased.

Gov. Bill Walker said the move is disappointing and that he’ll work with federal officials and the state’s congressional delegation to “prevent federal overreach.” Alaska Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth said the governor’s administration is still evaluating what the decision means for the state. She said the Department of Law has a duty to continue upholding state laws.

In a statement on Twitter, Sen. Lisa Murkowski called the decision regrettable and disruptive. Rep. Don Young said the move is a “direct violation of states’ rights,” a claim echoed by Sen. Dan Sullivan.

“But, ya know, as someone who believes strongly in states’ rights and what Alaskans went to the polls for, yeah, it’s an issue I’ve been focused on,” Sullivan said in an interview Thursday. “Now, I think possibly the decision today could be an impetus to move more legislation on this, which is what I think ultimately is what’s going to have to happen.”

Sullivan said he’s examining bills that could be relevant to the decision over cannabis, but there’s a remaining challenge in gaining enough support from a majority of senators, most of whom do not come from states that have voted for legalization.

In response to the news from the Justice Department, the head of the state’s Marijuana Control Board has decided to resign. According to the Associated Press, Soldotna Police Chief Peter Mlynarik said the change removes the foundation upon which the state’s industry is built.