Regulators pledged on Thursday they would push ahead with implementation of the state's voter-approved recreational marijuana law despite potential confusion stemming from a shift in official U.S. policy on enforcement of federal laws against pot.
State officials, including Republican Gov. Charlie Baker and Attorney General Maura Healey, a Democrat, criticized the announcement from U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions that he was rescinding a policy from the previous administration that allowed legal marijuana to flourish, without interference from federal prosecutors, in Massachusetts and seven other states where adult use is permitted.
The five-member Cannabis Control Commission is finalizing rules for pot shops expected to begin opening in the state around the middle of this year. The commission said "nothing had changed from its standpoint and it was committed to fulfilling the will of voters.
"We will continue to move forward with our process to establish and implement sensible regulations for this emerging industry in Massachusetts," the panel said in a statement.
The new stance from Sessions will let federal prosecutors in legal marijuana states decide how aggressively to enforce federal law that outlaws the drug.
In a statement issued later on Thursday, U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Andrew Lelling said his office would pursue serious federal crimes involving marijuana but did not directly address the state law or questions about whether it would impede in any way the establishment of commercial marijuana businesses.
"As the Justice Department has highlighted, medical studies confirm that marijuana is in fact a dangerous drug, and it is illegal under federal law," Lelling said. "As a result, our office will aggressively investigate and prosecute bulk cultivation and trafficking cases, and those who use the federal banking system illegally."
The statement, however, also promised that "prosecutorial discretion" would be applied in all cases and that his office would meet with state and local officials to discuss marijuana enforcement.
Jim Borghesani, a Massachusetts spokesman for the pro-cannabis Marijuana Policy Project, said it was encouraging that Lelling's statement stopped well short of threatening legal action against future legal marijuana businesses in the state. But he also called on the prosecutor to go further and "recognize and respect the voters' decision."
The action by Sessions was disruptive and "reckless," said Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who called on Congress to act immediately to protect marijuana laws in Massachusetts and other states.
It is already legal in Massachusetts for people over 21 to possess up to an ounce of marijuana for recreational purposes and grow up to 12 pot plants per household. It remains illegal to sell the drug until the proposed regulations are finalized and licenses granted to businesses that hope to grow or open retail stores like those in Colorado and other states.
Baker and Healey both opposed the 2016 ballot question but since passage have said they are committed to implementing the law safely and effectively.
Brendan Moss, a Baker spokesman, said the governor would monitor the impact of what he considered the "wrong decision" by Sessions, and any policy changes that might come from the U.S. Attorney in Massachusetts.
"Today's announcement from Washington inexplicably directs federal law enforcement resources away from combatting an opioid epidemic that is ravaging our communities in order to focus on legalized marijuana," said Healey.
Medical marijuana dispensaries began operating several years ago in Massachusetts. A congressional amendment blocks the Department of Justice from interfering with medical marijuana programs in states where it is allowed, though Justice officials did not immediately rule out the possibility of prosecutions related to medical marijuana.