January 24, 2018 / 6:11 PM / a year ago

Massachusetts federal prosecutor says opioids top pot as priority

BOSTON, Jan 24 (Reuters) - Massachusetts’ new federal prosecutor on Wednesday said that he will not rule out prosecuting marijuana businesses in a state that has legalized the drug, but that his focus was on the opioid epidemic.

“The No. 1 enforcement priority for my office is the opioid crisis,” said U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling. “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.”

Lelling sought to clarify his stance on marijuana prosecutions in the first press conference in his new role after the administration of Republican U.S. President Donald Trump in January rescinded an Obama-era policy easing enforcement in states that legalized the drug.

Massachusetts is among nine states that have legalized recreational marijuana use, which remains illegal under federal law. State voters in 2016 backed an initiative legalizing its recreational use and retail sales could begin later this year.

But in January, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded a policy put in place under Democratic President Barack Obama that limited enforcement of marijuana laws where the drug had been legalized.

The new policy gave U.S. attorney’s offices discretion in how they enforced the law. Lelling, a Trump nominee who took office in December, subsequently said he would not promise to not prosecute state-sanctioned marijuana businesses.

Those remarks troubled advocates for Massachusetts’ nascent marijuana industry. Lelling said on Wednesday that “people I think have lost sight a little bit of the prior statements of the office.”

The 14 prosecutors serving in his office were focusing their efforts on opioids and pursuing cases against bulk traffickers of fentanyl, heroin and other drugs of that type, he said.

“That is where my resources are going right now,” Lelling said.

Opioids were involved in over 42,000 overdose deaths in 2016, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In October, Trump declared the problem a national public health emergency.

Lelling also said businesses involved in medical marijuana would not be a priority for his office. He cited a current budget rider that prevents the U.S. Justice Department from spending funds to interfere with state medical marijuana laws.

But he would not rule out investigating banks that open accounts for marijuana businesses in Massachusetts.

“I’m a not a policymaker,” he said. “I just deal with the law as it is. The law as it should be? That’s somebody else.” (Reporting by Nate Raymond; editing by Scott Malone, G Crosse)

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