Massachusetts Federal Prosecutor Sets Opioids, Not Pot, As Priority

By Keri Blakinger 01/26/18

The Trump nominee says his major concern is the opioid crisis, which took 2,100 lives in Massachusetts last year. 

U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling
U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling Photo via YouTube

The newly sworn-in top federal prosecutor in Massachusetts said this week that pot is not his priority. 

A Trump nominee installed last month, U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling would not rule out prosecuting pot businesses that are legal under state law, but said that fighting the opioid epidemic is a higher priority. Massachusetts was one of four states to legalize cannabis in 2016.

“The number one enforcement priority for my office is the opioid crisis,” Lelling told reporters last week, according to Reuters. “As I was pointing out to someone the other day, 2,100 people in Massachusetts were killed by opioid overdoses last year, not marijuana overdoses.”

Although prosecutors will figure out on a case-by-case whether they want to play a role in marijuana prosecutions, Lelling pointed out that most pot cases have involved bulk trafficking across international boundaries. 

The open-ended comments resonated with advocates and officials in the growing industry. 

“We’re fully aware of the internal political dynamics he’s facing, and we trust he’s equally aware of the local desire for a safe and regulated cannabis market,” said Marijuana Policy Project state spokesman Jim Borghesani, according to Leafly.

Lelling’s comments come amid the U.S. Attorney General's crusade to tighten up marijuana laws. On Jan. 4, Attorney General Jeff Sessions nixed an Obama-era policy limiting the enforcement of federal marijuana laws in states that have legalized the drug. Four days later, Lelling said he would not promise to avoid prosecuting legal marijuana businesses.

But last week he offered a little more clarity when pointing out that his 14 drug prosecutors will zero in on fentanyl and heroin cases. “That is where my resources are going right now,” he said. 

Also this month, a pair of Massachusetts state reps filed a bill called the “Refusal of Compliance Act,” which could effectively create a sanctuary state for pot by banning local cops from handing over federal pot law violators without a warrant.

“Massachusetts voters have gone to the polls and expressed their support for what I’d call a sensible drug policy and an end to marijuana prohibition,” said co-sponsor Rep. Mike Connolly, according to CityLab

“I can appreciate the parallel between this and more typical sanctuary-state-type stuff. I think the comparison is pretty clear, to the extent that we are a state government responding to the will of our own voters and people in our community.”

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.