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Sessions: Prosecutors are to seek mandatory minimum drug sentences

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a policy memo on Friday directing all federal prosecutors to seek "a reasonable sentence" under the federal sentencing guidelines as currently written. This includes seeking mandatory minimum sentences in all drug cases, including marijuana prosecutions.

"It is a core principle that prosecutors should charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense," reads the memo. "By definition, the most serious offenses are those that carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory-minimum sentences."

This is a substantial retreat from the position taken by Obama-era Attorney General Eric Holder, who asked prosecutors to limit mandatory minimums for low-level nonviolent offenders with short-to-no criminal histories. Holder sought to reserve mandatory minimums -- which often stretch into decades -- for "serious, high-level, or violent drug traffickers" instead of street-level users.

This was largely in response to the mass incarceration crisis, which Obama and Holder believed was fueled in large part by a failed drug war with long sentences for non-dangerous rule-breakers. When releasing his own policy memo in 2013, Holder concluded that "long sentences for low-level, non-violent drug offenses do not promote public safety, deterrence, and rehabilitation."

It was also an effort to stay out of the way of states like North Carolina that have chosen to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana for personal use.

Marijuana users should not rely on federal prosecutors' restraint

Shortly after his confirmation, Sessions issued an explicit warning to states that choose to decriminalize marijuana or to allow medical cannabis.

"States, they can pass the laws they choose," he added. "I would just say it does remain a violation of federal law to distribute marijuana throughout any place in the United States, whether a state legalizes it or not."

He also warned that states could expect violence to flow from their decisions because, ironically, federal law still criminalizes marijuana. "You can't sue somebody for drug debt; the only way to get your money is through strong-arm tactics, and violence tends to follow that."

Sessions' move seems to go against a trend toward recognition that marijuana is not as serious as other controlled substances. Currently, the majority of U.S. states allow medical cannabis. Eight states and the District of Columbia have decriminalized small amounts or allow recreational use.

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