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Feds' Planned Marijuana Crackdown Is Disruptive, Frosh Says

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Many state officials are not happy with a move by the Trump administration. Attorney General Jeff Sessions gave new guidance to federal law enforcement. The statement appears to make it easier to enforce the federal ban on marijuana, even in states that legalized it. The Obama administration had backed off.

Maryland changed its law in 2014, making the possession of small amounts of pot a civil - not a criminal - offense. The state also has a medical marijuana program. And we'll discuss that with Brian Frosh, Maryland's attorney general, who's on the line. Good morning, sir.

BRIAN FROSH: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What does the Justice Department change mean in practical terms in Maryland?

FROSH: Well, it's extremely disruptive, and it's inhumane. It's inhumane because we have patients with cancer, with extreme pain, AIDS and neurological problems that are helped by medical marijuana. And this puts that help at risk.

INSKEEP: I guess we should mention it's just been in recent weeks - right? - that your state has begun opening medical marijuana dispensaries.

FROSH: That's exactly right.

INSKEEP: I've got a list of them here. There's one in Baltimore, one in Rockville, Ellicott City, Cumberland, Md. - cities that people will have heard of across the country. But when you say it's inhumane, are you expecting that the FBI or federal prosecutors are going to show up at these dispensaries, arresting people?

FROSH: Well, the interesting thing about this new policy is that they don't say what they're going to do. They just tore up President Obama's policy. And that policy essentially said that the Justice Department is going to prioritize its marijuana enforcement. They were going to go after folks who were selling marijuana to minors. They were going to go after criminal enterprises that were using it or using it for money laundering. They were going to stop it from going across borders into states where it's not legal.

And this new policy just gives us a big question mark. It opens the door to across-the-board enforcement against patients, against people who have small amounts of marijuana, as well as against the other criminal enterprises or disruptive activities that the Obama Justice Department focused on.

INSKEEP: Is it your presumption, Attorney General, then, that your local U.S. attorney or your local FBI station chief still isn't going to be able to prosecute everybody who's ever possessed marijuana in Maryland, but they're going to make their own decision about whether they want to shut down a dispensary or not?

FROSH: Yeah. That's exactly right, Steve. I mean, they don't have enough Drug Enforcement Administration agents or FBI agents to stand on every corner and stamp it all out. So it's going to be more haphazard. It's going to depend in part upon what the U.S. attorney decides in each jurisdiction. And, by the way, Maryland has an acting U.S. attorney. We have a new one who's been nominated but not confirmed. So we have no idea what the policy in Maryland is going to be.

INSKEEP: So what is your advice to the dispensary in Ellicott City or the private pot smoker in Baltimore?

FROSH: Well, I hope they will be careful, they'll abide by the Maryland law. And we will hope that the Trump Justice Department takes a reasonable approach to its enforcement of the federal marijuana laws. And our state will do what it can to help and protect them. But in large part, it's beyond our control.

INSKEEP: You acknowledge, then, that the federal government, because of the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, has the right to do this, right?

FROSH: Yeah, that's exactly right.

INSKEEP: Is there anything that you could or would try to do in court to push back on the Trump administration?

FROSH: I think it's going to be very difficult to push back in court. I think the best avenue, the best approach is for Congress to take action. The marijuana laws on the federal books are old and outdated. And while it's a controversial subject, it's something on which Congress needs to take action.

INSKEEP: Do you believe there might be enough political support across the country to change marijuana laws on the federal level?

FROSH: Yeah, I do. I mean, look. There are 28 states that allow the sale of marijuana either for medical purposes or recreational. And members of both parties have expressed outrage at this change in policy of the Justice Department.

INSKEEP: When do you think you'll know the way the Trump administration is really going to be going?

FROSH: I think it's going to be something that rolls out over the next couple of years. You're going to have differences from state to state. And people are going to have to feel their way through it. It's going to be very difficult to see a definitive position by the Justice Department. They haven't taken one.

INSKEEP: Attorney General, thanks very much.

FROSH: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Brian Frosh is the attorney general of Maryland.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.