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It's unclear how Sessions' marijuana move will affect ND program, state official says, but politicians say state voters had their say

Jason Wahl, interim director of the North Dakota Department of Health's medical marijuana division, gives opening comments at a public hearing on the agency's proposed rules for the program Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017, at the state Capitol. John Hageman / Forum News Service

BISMARCK—It remained unclear Thursday, Jan. 4, how U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions' decision to rescind guidance on marijuana enforcement may affect North Dakota's budding medical marijuana program, a state official said.

Gov. Doug Burgum, meanwhile, said "North Dakota voters have spoken" on whether medical marijuana should be legal.

Jason Wahl, the state Department of Health's interim medical marijuana director, said they need to review Sessions' memo with legal counsel to determine its effects. The department previously said marijuana may be available for medical purposes later this year.

"Right now, at this point in time, we are continuing to work on implementing the medical marijuana program as required under the state law," Wahl said.

A spokeswoman for North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said that office doesn't generally comment on "attorney-client advice." Chris Myers, the U.S. Attorney for North Dakota, said "it's hard to tell" how Sessions' memo might affect North Dakota's law.

"I can't speculate on what might happen down the road because we don't have any certainty as to how the state is going to set up and implement that program," he said. Myers noted his office typically focuses on large-scale drug trafficking organizations.

Sessions said prosecutors should "follow the well-established principles that govern all federal prosecutions" and rescinded a 2013 memo from then-Deputy Attorney General James Cole that provided guidance on marijuana enforcement. North Dakota officials have referenced the so-called "Cole Memo" in creating the state's medical marijuana program, noting that marijuana remains a federally illegal drug.

"It is the mission of the Department of Justice to enforce the laws of the United States, and the previous issuance of guidance undermines the rule of law and the ability of our local, state, tribal, and federal law enforcement partners to carry out this mission," Sessions said in a statement.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said in a statement that "states are really determining how this issue will be handled now and going forward, and I don't think this policy decision will change that." Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp said it was "unclear how today's announcement would affect North Dakota's recently approved medical marijuana law and the impact that could have on qualified patients and caregivers in our state."

"I'm going to continue to follow this situation to see how it will impact our state, especially after North Dakotans made their voices heard and voted to legalize medical marijuana," she added in a statement.

Almost 64 percent of North Dakota voters approved the medical marijuana ballot measure in 2016, but state lawmakers said it was flawed and required changes. They rewrote the law during last year's legislative session and Burgum signed it in April.

"We support states' rights when deciding whether medical marijuana should be legalized, and North Dakota voters have spoken," the Republican governor said in a statement.

Congress in December extended protections for state medical marijuana programs through Jan. 19 as part of a government funding bill, according to Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., whose name is attached to the provision.

Supporters of marijuana's "full legalization" for adults in North Dakota are hoping to have a measure on the November 2018 ballot. Josh Dryer, that effort's campaign manager, was unconcerned with Thursday's news.

"We have faith in the elected officials that represent the states that have already legalized, whether it be medicinal or recreational," he said.

Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said the move forces "the bigger issue, and that is Congress should act on this and make it clear that ... this a states' rights issue, that it should be up to states to determine whether they want to allow marijuana."

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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