Is This The Feds’ Marijuana Crackdown?

By Tom Angell | August 03, 2017

Two separate cases filed by federal prosecutors this week that allege corruption surrounding the marijuana industry could provide a window into U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s approach to cannabis enforcement.

In the first case, Michael Kimbrew, then a Congressional staffer, is alleged in 2015 to have offered to “make things happen” for a Compton, California marijuana dispensary. According to an extortion and bribery indictment unsealed following Kimbrew’s arrest on Wednesday, he is accused of telling an undercover FBI agent posing as a business partner of dispensary’s owners that he would “not send local or federal authorities to shut down” the marijuana operation. He also allegedly said he would not tell his boss, then-Congresswoman Janice Hahn, about the dispensary, thereby “eliminating the possibility that the Congress member would inform the FBI about [its] illegal activities.” He then accepted $5,000 in cash from the undercover FBI agent, the indictment says.

A second case, announced Thursday, concerns three Michigan men who are accused of trying to bribe Garden City, Michigan officials into changing local ordinances so they could obtain a license to cultivate medical cannabis. The indictment against them alleges that they offered bribes, including an ongoing monthly cut of marijuana profits, in exchange for the needed changes and approvals. One of the defendants even allegedly offered to “buy a police car and pay for one police officer’s yearly wages” as part of the scheme.

The two cases don’t appear to be directly related, but the near-simultaneous timing of their announcement suggests a possible enforcement trend and is perhaps a sign of things to come.

The actions come less than a week after an internal U.S. Department of Justice task force was due to submit marijuana enforcement policy recommendations to Sessions. The attorney general, a longtime ardent opponent of legalization, hasn’t released the task forces’s findings, but said last week that he has “been acting on [its] recommendations to set the policy of the Department” and “look[s] forward to taking additional steps towards ensuring safer communities for all Americans.”

At least one U.S. senator is pressing the Justice Department to make the recommendations public. Also, last month, apparently as part of the federal government’s review of marijuana policies, representatives from several agencies held secret meetings with state and local officials in Colorado.

If the Trump administration is to launch a broad marijuana crackdown — and there is still no clarity about whether it in fact intends to do so despite a series of concerning comments from Sessions and other officials — legalization advocates and industry participants would surely prefer that law enforcement use its limited resources to go after people who are not acting in accordance with state laws, as those in the two new cases are accused of doing, than to target licensed businesses that are following local policies.

During the first term of the Obama administration, federal prosecutors in a number of states filed cases against state-legal medical cannabis businesses and in some instances even sent threat letters to public officials who were considering enacting marijuana law reforms.

Following President Obama’s reelection and Colorado and Washington State’s voting to legalize marijuana,  the Justice Department issued guidance — known as the Cole Memo — that gave states a roadmap for avoiding federal interference with their cannabis laws.

That policy remains in effect, for now, but Sessions has said it is under review.

Tom Angell

Tom Angell is a senior political correspondent for MassRoots. A 15-year veteran in the cannabis law reform movement, he covers the policy and politics of marijuana. Separately, he serves as chairman of the nonprofit Marijuana Majority and is editor of the daily Marijuana Moment newsletter.

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