"States, they can pass the laws they choose," Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in February. "I would just say it does remain a violation of federal law to distribute marijuana throughout any place in the United States, whether a state legalizes it or not."
That was the case before he entered office, but his statement still signaled a change in federal policy. Under the Obama Administration, federal prosecutors were urged not to rock the boat. When low-level, nonviolent offenders with short criminal histories were charged, for example, with marijuana possession, U.S. Attorneys could omit the quantity of drugs involved from their sentencing recommendations. This essentially served to remind judges that they aren't bound to sentence defendants using Congressional mandatory minimum sentences, which often last for years or decades.
"In some cases, mandatory-minimum and recidivist-enhancement statutes have resulted in unduly harsh sentences and perceived or actual disparities that do not reflect our Principles of Federal Prosecution," said then-Attorney General Eric Holder. In order to avoid stuffing our prisons full of non-dangerous people and ruining their lives, prosecutors were asked to consider whether the charges they brought "would create a gross sentencing disparity" compared to more serious or violent offenders.
Marijuana may be decriminalized in Rhode Island, but not federally
As Sessions says, the federal government might choose to interfere with state-level decriminalization by prosecuting anyone they catch using marijuana. This could create a maelstrom of confusion, with citizens facing a mere fine in state court but years behind bars in federal court.
Beware: It could happen. Sessions appears to be planning on it.
In a policy memo released on Friday, he stated that federal prosecutors "should in all cases seek a reasonable sentence under the factors" listed in the federal sentencing guidelines, such as stacked or mandatory-minimum sentences. Any prosecutor who prefers not to do so should seek "supervisory approval" from the Department of Justice.
"It is a core principle that prosecutors should charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense," he added, and "by definition, the most serious offenses are those that carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory-minimum sentences."
If you find yourself charged with a federal drug crime, you need to contact an experienced attorney at once. Your future is on the line.