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Montana politicians on the horns of a marijuana dilemma

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Late last week U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the Justice Department would be reversing an Obama-era decision to allow states to regulate their own medical and recreational use of marijuana despite the federal prohibition against such use. The move sent ripples throughout the nation since 29 states and the District of Columbia now allow medical and/or recreational marijuana use.

Several states have already announced their intention to fight back, but so far, Montana’s Republican Attorney General Tim Fox, Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, and Republican U.S. Congressman Greg Gianforte have remained silent — as have Montana Democrats U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and Gov. Steve Bullock.

Sessions’ announcement came only days after California, the most populous state in the Union, legalized marijuana for recreational use. As the first state to legalize medical marijuana, California has long led the way toward regulated use rather than criminal prosecution — although it was not the first state to legalize recreational use following Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Nevada, Maine and the District of Columbia. And so far, none of the states that legalized recreational use has imploded, fallen off the face of the earth, or even experienced significant difficulties with decriminalization.

Just the opposite, in fact, with the regulated, inspected and taxed marijuana products bringing in billions in new revenue for the states, while the latest Gallup poll shows a whopping 64 percent of Americans believe marijuana should be legalized.

Here in Montana, we’ve had our own roller-coaster ride with the issue of legalized medical marijuana. Citizens overwhelmingly approved its use in a citizen initiative in 2004, after which the Republican-dominated legislature decided to override the initiative with much more restrictive provisions. Citizens fought back and in 2016, passed another initiative to ease the legislature’s burdensome measures.

It’s no great secret that Montana’s congressional delegation has long ridden the tired old horse of “federal overreach” when it comes to the Endangered Species Act, forest management, water quality, national monument and wilderness designation, and resource extraction on federal lands. While it’s safe to say most of the noise in that regard has come from Republicans, our Demo politicians routinely jump on board when they feel it serves their purpose.

But now, that dog is coming back to bite them as Sessions’ “federal overreach” portends prosecuting citizens in more than half the states in the Union that are following state laws on marijuana use.

As Colorado’s Republican Sen. Cory Gardner bluntly put it in a Senate floor speech: “What happened today was a trampling of Colorado’s rights, its voters.” Given that President Trump assured the nation he would not interfere in states’ decisions on marijuana use — and that Attorney General Sessions promised to follow that decision when before the Senate — Gardner has good reason to be angry and says he “will be putting today a hold on every single nomination from the Department of Justice until Attorney General Jeff Sessions lives up to the commitment he made to me.”

Indeed, it would be good to see federal prosecutors start living up to the promises made by their presidents and bosses. Montanans well remember that federal agents raided and destroyed numerous medical marijuana businesses across the state after President Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder issued his memorandum saying the Justice Department would respect state laws.

Which brings us right back to Montana’s congressional delegation, governor and attorney general. Are you going to represent the citizens who elected you or are you going to kneel before the “federal overreach” you so often disparage? So far, the silence is deafening.

George Ochenski writes from Helena. His column appears each Monday on the Missoulian's Opinion page. He can be reached by email at

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