JUNEAU, Alaska — Republican U.S. Rep. Don Young on Thursday ripped the U.S. Department of Justice over a shift toward tougher marijuana enforcement, calling the move a “direct violation of states’ rights.”
Young said that if the decision by Attorney General Jeff Sessions stands and Congress allows the department to crack down on individuals and states, “it will be one of the biggest derelictions of duty I will have witnessed.” Young has served in the House since 1973.
Sessions ended an Obama-era policy that paved the way for legalized marijuana to flourish in states such as Alaska. The decision received immediate pushback from Alaska’s Republican congressional delegation and from Gov. Bill Walker, a Republican turned independent.
It also prompted the resignation of the chairman of the state’s Marijuana Control Board, Peter Mlynarik, who said the decision strips away the underpinning for the legal marijuana industry in Alaska. Mlynarik, who is the police chief of Soldotna, Alaska, said it ends the federal government “looking the other way” in legal pot states.
Mlynarik was involved in getting to the local ballot a measure that would bar marijuana businesses outside of cities in the Kenai Peninsula Borough. He said at the time he does not believe that is a conflict.
The state, in setting up its marijuana industry, drew guidance from a memo from President Barack Obama’s administration that limited federal enforcement of the drug, as long as states prevented it from getting to places it was still outlawed and kept it from gangs and children. Marijuana remains illegal at the federal level.
Sessions said the previous guidance “undermines the rule of law.” He said U.S. prosecutors in the states where pot is legal can decide which marijuana activities to target.
Alaska U.S. Attorney Bryan Schroder said his office will continue to follow long-established principles in deciding which cases to charge, including following federal law enforcement priorities.
“The highest priorities of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Alaska are consistent with those of the Justice Department nationally: combating violent crime, including as it stems from the scourge of drug trafficking,” he said in a statement.
Walker said he’s committed to upholding the will of Alaska voters, who legalized recreational pot use in 2014. He said he would work with the Justice Department and lawmakers to prevent federal overreach.
Spokesman Jonathon Taylor said Walker and state Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth were evaluating possible options for doing that. Lindemuth said her office has a duty to uphold and implement state law.
Alaska’s senior U.S. senator, Lisa Murkowski, said she had asked Sessions to work with states and Congress if he thought changes to pot policy were needed. She called his announcement “disruptive” and “regrettable.”
Sen. Dan Sullivan said it contradicts previous statements by President Donald Trump but could be the impetus for Congress to find a permanent solution for states that have chosen to regulate marijuana.
Pot industry advocates said Sessions’ decision creates confusion and flies in the face of a growing legalization movement.
Chris Lindsey, senior legislative counsel with the Marijuana Policy Project, said prosecutors previously had discretion. But there is a new attorney general, “who I guess wants to reverse the course of history or something,” he said.
Jane Stinson, a part owner of the retail marijuana shop Enlighten Alaska in Anchorage, worries about the potential effect on her business, which had been looking to grow and is negotiating a lease for another building.
Sessions’ decision feels vindictive and unreasonable, she said.