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Md.’s top US prosecutor will not target medical marijuana growers

Schenning says priorities are national security, violent crime, opioid crisis, public corruption

Acting U.S. Attorney. Stephen Schenning. (U.S. Department of Justice photo)

Acting U.S. Attorney. Stephen Schenning. (U.S. Department of Justice photo)

Maryland’s top federal prosecutor said he has no plans to enforce federal anti-drug laws against medical marijuana growers and distributors in the state.

Acting U.S. Attorney Stephen M. Schenning said Friday his top priorities are combatting threats to national security, violent crime, the opioid epidemic and public corruption when asked if Maryland’s medical marijuana industry has anything to fear from U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ directive that federal prosecutors decide for themselves whether to enforce federal marijuana laws aggressively in states where pot is legal.

Sessions’ order was not a call for prosecutors to combat marijuana growers but to tell them to “know the district, know the priorities and pursue them,” Shenning said. In keeping with that directive, Schenning said he will “pursue with vigor the priorities in our district,” adding that marijuana is lawful for medical purposes in Maryland.

The prosecutor, however, added he is willing to charge individuals under federal anti-marijuana laws if their drug offenses were among other more deadly crimes, much as the gangster Al Capone was also charged – and convicted of – tax evasion.

Sessions’ directive on prosecutorial discretion contrasts with the former Obama administration instruction that U.S. attorneys not enforce federal marijuana laws in states where pot is legal.

Schenning is serving as Maryland’s top federal prosecutor pending U.S. Senate confirmation of Robert K. Hur, President Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. attorney for the state. Hur’s nomination is pending before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Maryland’s two U.S. senators, both Democrats, are expected to ask Hur to discuss his interpretation of Session’s policy and how he sees its application in the state.

Sessions’ policy leaves it to U.S. attorneys in those states where pot is legal to decide whether to aggressively enforce federal marijuana law.

“In deciding which marijuana activities to prosecute under these laws with the Department’s finite resources, prosecutors should follow the well-established principles that govern all federal prosecutions,” by considering the seriousness of the crime and its impact on the community, Sessions wrote in a one-page memo to the nation’s federal prosecutors.

At the time of Sessions’ announcement earlier this month, Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh had warned that the policy change could adversely affect Maryland’s medical cannabis program and result in growers, processors and dispensers being arrested and having their businesses and assets seized.

“If you’re a marijuana grower or processor or dispenser in Maryland, it’s got to make you a lot less comfortable than you were yesterday,” said Frosh, who added that the changes will also take a human toll.

And the chief executive officer of MedChi, the Maryland State Medical Society, said the Trump administration’s policy added a level of uncertainty that might cause registered doctors to not participate in Maryland’s medical cannabis program and others to decide not to sign up. Currently, about 400 physicians are registered with the state medical cannabis commission to write recommendations for patients they are treating.

Despite those concerns, others predicted that Sessions’ move was aimed largely to discourage states from legalizing recreational use of marijuana and was not likely to result in any challenges to medical cannabis programs.


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