William Long Whitesell, L.L.C.

Federal crime and safety task force urges caution on marijuana

The presidential Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety, led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, is urging caution before making any major changes to marijuana policy. It also recommends working collaboratively with the Treasury Department to make banking easier for legal marijuana businesses.

The task force’s recommendations were due July 27, but they have yet to be made public. A portion of the upcoming report was obtained by the Associated Press.

Before the partial report was revealed, many assumed that a major crackdown on marijuana -- legal and illegal -- was coming. AG Sessions has indicated that he believes marijuana to be as problematic as heroin and explicitly tied it to violent crime. The task force is set up to fight violent crime, and several policy announcements Sessions made recently made it seem likely that the Attorney General was hoping for a report that came to the same conclusions.

In April, Sessions said that task force subcommittees would be focusing on policy in the areas of “charging, sentencing, and marijuana.”

In May, Sessions announced that the Department of Justice would increase the use of civil forfeiture, which allows law enforcement to seize money and assets before trial if it can tie them to illegal activity. Civil forfeiture is often used in drug trafficking cases.

Also in May, Sessions reversed a popular Obama-era policy and urged federal prosecutors to seek the harshest appropriate sentences in all cases, including low-level, nonviolent marijuana crimes.

He also asked Congressional leaders to overturn a rule that prohibits the DOJ from interfering with states’ medical marijuana programs. So far, the rule remains.

The partial task force report the AP obtained echoes Sessions’ call for the end of that rule, however.

The report does not call for a crackdown on marijuana users or legal dispensaries. Instead, the report urges officials to continue studying whether a hands-off approach to marijuana enforcement -- at least in legalization states -- might not be the wiser course.

Furthermore, it recommends the DOJ and the Treasury Department issue legal guidance on how legal pot businesses can obtain banking services without undermining money laundering rules. This is already part of federal law.

In response to a Government Accountability Office complaint that the DOJ doesn’t track its marijuana enforcement activities well enough, the report suggests setting up “centralized guidance, tools and data related to marijuana enforcement.”

Although Sessions leads the task force, its recommendations are voluntary and non-binding. It is unclear how much weight the Attorney General may give them.

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