Marijuana Sanctuary State? Massachusetts Democrats Challenge Jeff Sessions's Approval For Cannabis Prosecutions

Democrats in Massachusetts are pushing for sanctuary status to protect the state's legal marijuana law as Attorney General Jeff Sessions pursues a crackdown on the legalized drug. Getty Images

Democrats in Massachusetts are pushing for their state to become the first so-called sanctuary from marijuana prosecution as Attorney General Jeff Sessions pushes a crackdown on the legalized drug.

Legislation proposed in the Massachusetts House of Representatives would prohibit state and local police from contributing resources to marijuana-related investigations, said Massachusetts Representative David Rogers. He told Newsweek that the bill responds to Sessions's recent reversal of an Obama-era policy that said the Justice Department would not interfere with marijuana businesses and use in states where it was allowed.

"The changed policy roiled the waters in these places where marijuana is legal," Rogers said. "If the FBI or federal cops or the U.S. attorney want to pursue these cases, perhaps that's their prerogative. But they will get no help at all from state or local police."

Rogers filed the bill, called the "Refusal of Compliance Act," along with Democrat Representative Mike Connolly on January 19. The legislation is in the early stages and still needs approval from Democrat-led committees, as well as the Massachusetts Senate. If it is eventually approved, it would make Massachusetts the first sanctuary state for both immigrants and marijuana.

Nine states have legalized recreational marijuana, but none have passed protections that would ban local law enforcement from assisting in federal intervention.

Related: Recreational marijuana is legal in these states

The U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts, Andrew Lelling, was appointed by President Donald Trump. He has said his office will prioritize the region's opioid crisis over federal marijuana enforcement but acknowledges that the industry could face scrutiny due to its "unambiguously illegal" status at the federal level, according to the Boston Herald.

"If you run into something that's a priority for my office and the state and local police don't want to be involved—say, immigration or marijuana—I can't tell them what to do," Lelling said. "I can ask for their help. But at the end of the day, if they don't want to give it, then we'll have to be on our own."

The two largest cities in Massachusetts—Boston and Worcester—have already refused to follow Sessions's position on federal law superceding the state and local laws. Rogers said it is important to codify those cities' policy position to protect the other 349 cities and towns that have not committed to refusing assistance if the Justice Department decides to intervene in the state.

"I'm an open-minded person. If local law enforcement has concerns and wants to be able to cooperate in certain isolated incidents, I'm open to that conversation," Rogers said. "But our largest cities have already said no to cooperation."

Related: Marijuana legalization 2018: Which states might consider cannabis laws this year?

If the law passes in the Democrat-controlled Legislature, it would need approval from Republican Governor Charlie Baker. He said in January that he opposed Sessions's decision to reverse protections for states that have legalized marijuana, but has not indicated support for shielding the state from federal involvement.

"The administration believes this is the wrong decision and will review any potential impacts from any policy changes by the local U.S. Attorney's office," his office told local news source

Massachusetts legalized recreational marijuana in 2016 through a citizen-led ballot initiative and will begin selling it in July 2018. Adults who are at least 21 are allowed to possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana outside the home and up to 10 ounces in their residence.

The concept of a sanctuary state emerged from an Oregon immigration policy that limited how much law enforcement agencies could communicate with federal immigration agents, like those from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. After Oregon's policy was approved in 1987, it received little attention until states like California began considering versions of their own.