Feds take over marijuana prosecutions amid hemp legalization

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (CAPITOL NEWS SERVICE) - After multiple state attorneys across Florida announced the legalization of hemp would delay or even halt some marijuana prosecutions, the U.S. Attorney for Florida’s Northern District has announced the feds will take the reigns.

The legalization of hemp, marijuana’s non-psychoactive identical twin, propped state attorneys like Jack Campbell to reevaluate how they handle cases involving marijuana. (Adrian Cable)

The move could set new standards for marijuana prosecutions.

The legalization of hemp, marijuana’s non-psychoactive identical twin, propped state attorneys like Jack Campbell to reevaluate how they handle cases involving marijuana.

“We still are in a posture of trying to get the resources to be able to test it,” said Campbell.

In the meantime, Campbell and many other state attorneys have decided to delay or drop marijuana cases.

“The Legislature is still very clear that marijuana is illegal in this state,” said Campbell. "They’re also very clear that hemp is legal in this state. So we just need to be able to differentiate.”

Now U.S. Attorney of Florida’s Northern District Lawrence Keefe, who oversees 25 Florida counties, has said his office will take over the caseload.

"I welcome Mr. Keefe and the U.S. Attorney's Office. The resources they bring to bear are clearly wonderful and broad,” said Campbell.

Campbell said the federal cases will establish standards for pot prosecutions in the age of hemp.

“Things like an officer's ability to smell, a K-9's ability to smell, whether that still suffices for probable cause,” said Campbell.

With help from the DEA, the federal justice system is better equipped to distinguish hemp from marijuana than the state, which at the current time has no effective way to test the THC content of suspected pot without going through expensive private labs.

But President of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Richard Greenberg worries offenders will face stiffer penalties in federal court.

“I think it is unfortunate, particularly this day and age when there's a movement toward lessening the penalties for marijuana,” said Greenberg.

It’s not clear what level of offenses Keefe intends to prosecute.

Campbell said his office alone handles more than 1,000 misdemeanor possession cases a year.

Keefe did indicate his office plans to temporarily deputize state prosecutors to help manage the marijuana cases. However, we did not receive a response when we reached out to his office for more details.

Keefe sent us a statement that reads:
"Throughout the Northern District of Florida, local police, sheriffs, and state prosecutors know the close connection between illegal marijuana trafficking and the gun violence that plagues our communities. Unlike recreational marijuana users who largely engage in small-time transactions, these violent criminals pose a very real and ongoing threat to the law-abiding citizens of our communities.

"For this reason, the United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Florida will continue to exercise its federal prosecutorial discretion and responsibility to pursue those cases that involve violent felons who commit gun violence while trafficking in marijuana and other dangerous drugs. We will continue to support our local law enforcement partners in pursuing the darkest side of illegal marijuana trafficking and the violent crime often associated with it.

"But this office has no intent to discourage or deter the evolution of the Northern District of Florida’s legal marijuana industry, which is rapidly changing at the state level. This U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of Florida will not prosecute marijuana-related businesses that operate here in compliance with Florida state law. It is my assessment that the resources of this office should be allocated to higher priorities, such as criminal gun violence, dangerous drug trafficking, human trafficking, and domestic terrorism, as well as to the vital mission of our new “Public Trust Unit” that is focused on election security, public corruption, and national security.

"Law-abiding enterprises that comply with state law in the Northern District of Florida will be able to continue doing their business. State lawmakers can make their own policy decisions within the framework of federal law. The fact remains that marijuana is currently illegal under federal law, and it is my duty to efficiently and effectively utilize our finite federal law enforcement resources here in the Northern District of Florida. I have determined that these precious resources should not be used to prosecute federally here in the Northern District of Florida what the Florida state Legislature has determined to be legal in regard to marijuana.

"It is the domain of Congress and the Department of Justice to ultimately decide how to resolve differences between federal and state approaches to marijuana. Until that happens, it is my duty to use my best judgment on how to set prosecutorial priorities here in the Northern District of Florida. Therefore, we will continue to focus on large-scale cases, particularly those that involve the direct, established connection between illegal, black market marijuana trafficking and criminal gun violence, money laundering, and the “poly-drug” trafficking of marijuana along with other dangerous drugs such as heroin, fentanyl, methamphetamine, and cocaine."