Welcome clarification on state-fed. pot laws

Upon his appointment last January, Andrew Lelling, the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, threw a scare into the Bay State's nascent pot industry when he officially refused to rule out federal prosecution of marijuana-related crimes, underscoring the uneasy relationship between the federal government, which under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, views marijuana as a dangerous drug, and states that have legalized its use for medical and recreational purposes. On Tuesday, Mr. Lelling clarified his comments by essentially re-stating them (Eagle, July 11), but he couched his words in such a way that he left little doubt in the minds of growers, manufacturers, dealers and customers that as long as they obeyed the rules, chances were they'd be left alone by his office.

Mr. Lelling began his statement with a recitation of his duty: "Because I have a constitutional obligation to enforce the laws passed by Congress," he wrote, "I will not effectively immunize the residents of the Commonwealth from federal marijuana enforcement." Those words were at the core of the consternation and confusion engendered by his January message, and his reiteration of them was meant for an audience of one: Mr. Lelling's boss, Mr. Sessions — who persists in holding an outdated "Reefer Madness"-era view of marijuana's dangers.

Once the formalities were out of the way, Mr. Lelling indicated that his office and staff of drug-fighting prosecutors were concentrating their resources on the scourge of opioids, which plagues communities in the Berkshires as well as the rest of the state and country. As for marijuana crimes, he will focus upon activities with which few would disagree: overproduction, targeting of minors and organized crime encroachment into the pot industry.

As Mr. Lelling told Boston radio station WGBH in a recent interview, he and his counterparts have noticed that in states where the growing of marijuana is legal, there are growers who produce more than the local market will bear — diverting the excess to states where it remains illegal for sale on the black market. Shutting down the black market has been one of the strongest arguments for legalizing marijuana and it would be unfortunate if it were undermined. These crimes, along with shipments of large amounts of cash out of state that would indicate organized crime and/or gang involvement, are the proper arena for federal intervention and enforcement.

While those buying and selling relatively small amounts of marijuana for personal use appear to be off Mr. Lelling's radar screen, his reassurances did not address an ongoing impediment to the growth of the marijuana industry sustained by the conflict between the federal and state governments' views of pot's legality: As with any other sector, those involved in cannabis production and sales rely on access to credit to start and build their businesses. Currently, only a few banks and credit card companies are willing to take the risk of extending loans and business services to cannabis operations that, while locally sanctioned, are still viewed as illegal activity by the same federal government that charters those banks. Federally regulated financial institutions' understandable fear of being potential accessories to federal crimes does have a way of dampening their desire to do business with what has already proved itself to be a highly lucrative industry — and this pleases neither lenders nor borrowers. It is up to the federal government to provide needed clarity here.

Mr. Lelling, in his WGBH interview, admitted that the federal-state conflict has put prosecutors in an "extremely awkward position," insisting that marijuana buying and selling remains illegal and acknowledging that he and his colleagues must tread carefully, since "there appears to be a nationwide trend toward some kind of legalization." The closest he came in his interview to conceding that he would look the other way regarding activities regulated by the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission was to say "marijuana enforcement is not the priority of my office."

This should be enough to assuage the average pot seller and buyer that black helicopters disgorging federal agents won't be landing on the roof of their local weed shop within the foreseeable future.


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