U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Andrew Lelling

U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts: focus is on opioids, not marijuana

BOSTON — The top federal prosecutor for Massachusetts said Wednesday that while he cannot guarantee that people involved in the state’s legalized pot industry would be immune from federal prosecution, his priority will be combatting the deadly opioid epidemic.

U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling, who was sworn into office last month after being nominated by Republican President Donald Trump, said he believes marijuana is a dangerous drug and refused to rule out prosecuting those working in the voter-approved industry. But Lelling stressed that marijuana will not be his office’s focus.

“The number one enforcement priority for my office is the opioid crisis,” Lelling told reporters during a meeting in his Boston office. “Twenty one hundred people in Massachusetts were killed by opioid overdoses last year, not marijuana overdoses, so that is where my resources are going right now,” Lelling said.

Marijuana industry officials in Massachusetts have tried to get clarity from Lelling since U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions moved earlier this month to rescind an Obama-era Justice Department policy that, in general, called for non-interference with legal marijuana operations in states.

Lelling said that federal prosecutors will decide whether to get involved in marijuana matters on a case-by-case basis, but noted that marijuana cases his office has historically pursued have involved the bulk importation of the drug from Canada or Mexico as well as allegations of money laundering.

The U.S. attorney also indicated that he would continue a hands-off approach when it comes to medical marijuana, pointing to a federal budget amendment that prevents the Justice Department from interfering with medical marijuana programs in states where it is allowed.

The Cannabis Control Commission, a five-member panel created to regulate marijuana in Massachusetts, has pledged to move forward with a process that foresees the first commercial pot shops opening in July.

The commission has reached out to Lelling’s office, but Lelling said he will have to turn down an invitation to meet with its members because he’s prohibited from meeting with regulatory bodies.

“While I sympathize with the state and local (people) who want this kind of clarity … I simply can’t give it to them,” Lelling said.