WASHINGTON — The Trump administration threw the burgeoning movement to legalize marijuana into uncertainty Thursday as it lifted an Obama-era policy that kept federal authorities from cracking down on the pot trade in states where the drug is legal. Attorney General Jeff Sessions will now leave it up to federal prosecutors to decide what to do when state rules collide with federal drug law.
Sessions' action, just three days after a legalization law went into effect in California, threatened the future of the young industry, created confusion in states where the drug is legal and outraged both marijuana advocates and some members of Congress, including Sessions' fellow Republicans. Many conservatives are wary of what they see as federal intrusion in areas they believe must be left to the states.
Republican Sen. Cory Gardner, who represents Colorado, one of eight states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use, said the change contradicts a pledge Sessions made to him before being confirmed as attorney general. Gardner promised to push legislation to protect marijuana sales, saying he was prepared "to take all steps necessary" to fight the change, including holding up the confirmation of Justice Department nominees. Another Republican senator, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, called the announcement "disruptive" and "regrettable."
Colorado's U.S. attorney, Bob Troyer, said his office won't change its approach to prosecution, despite Sessions' guidance. Prosecutors there always have focused on marijuana crimes that "create the greatest safety threats" and will continue to be guided by that, Troyer said.
The largely hands-off approach to marijuana enforcement set forth by Barack Obama's Justice Department allowed the pot business to flourish into a sophisticated, multimillion-dollar industry that helps fund some state government programs. What happens now is in doubt.
"In deciding which marijuana activities to prosecute under these laws with the Department's finite resources, prosecutors should follow the well-established principles that govern all federal prosecutions," considering the seriousness of a crime and its impact on the community, Sessions told prosecutors in a one-page memo.
While Sessions, a longtime marijuana foe, has been carrying out a Justice Department agenda that follows Trump's top priorities on such issues as immigration and opioids, this change reflects his own concerns. He railed against marijuana as an Alabama senator and has assailed it as comparable to heroin.
Trump, as a candidate, said pot should be left up to the states, but his personal views on marijuana remain largely unknown.
It is not clear how the change might affect states where marijuana is legal for medical purposes. A congressional amendment blocks the Justice Department from interfering with medical marijuana programs in states where it is allowed. Justice officials said they would follow the law, but would not preclude the possibility of medical-marijuana related prosecutions.
Officials wouldn't say whether federal prosecutors would target marijuana shops and legal growers, nor would they speculate on whether pot prosecutions would increase.
They denied the timing was connected to the opening of California sales, which are projected to bring in $1 billion annually in tax revenue within several years. And, the officials said, Thursday's action might not be the only step toward greater marijuana enforcement. The department has the authority to sue states on the grounds that state laws regulating pot are unconstitutional, pre-empted by federal law.
Asked about the change, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said only that Trump's top priority is enforcing federal law "and that is regardless of what the topic is, whether it's marijuana or whether it's immigration."
The Obama administration in 2013 announced it would not stand in the way of states that legalize marijuana, so long as officials acted to keep it from migrating to places where it remained outlawed and keep it out of the hands of criminal gangs and children. That memo, written by then-Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole, had cleared up some of the uncertainty about how the federal government would respond as states began allowing sales for recreational and medical purposes.
But the Sessions Justice Department believed the Cole memo created a "safe harbor" for marijuana by allowing states to flout federal law, Justice Department officials said. Sessions, in his memo, called the Obama guidance "unnecessary."
He and some law enforcement officials in states such as Colorado blame legalization for a number of problems, including drug traffickers who have taken advantage to illegally grow and ship the drug across state lines, where it can sell for much more.
Marijuana advocates argue those concerns are overblown and contend legalizing the drug reduces crime by eliminating the need for a black market. They quickly condemned Sessions' move as a return to outdated drug-war policies that unduly affected minorities.
SIOUX CITY | As the snow falls fast and furious on a chilly Saturday night in Sioux City, Jim Johnson warms with conversation and basketball action as his beloved Briar Cliff Chargers race up and down the court at the Newman Flanagan Center, battling the Panthers of York College.
This is the eighth and final contest of the Holiday Classic, a 2-day extravaganza featuring eight squads.
Johnson meets the Chargers after their 110-87 victory and offers congratulations with his signature: A batch of chocolate chip cookies, created from scratch.
Johnson has been baking goodies like this for the BCU men's basketball team since 1999. "I figure I'm somewhere between 9,000 and 10,000 cookies," he says.
After each home game, and prior to bus trips for a number of road contests, Johnson leaves for the team two dozen cookies or brownies. (He bakes cookies; his wife, Lynn Johnson, specializes in brownies.)
The tradition began when their son, Trent Johnson, an East High Black Raider who stands 6-feet, 10-inches, matriculated to Briar Cliff in the fall of 1999.
"When Trent played at Briar Cliff, several of his teammates didn't have a parent within 100 miles of Sioux City, so they didn't have a parent at many of the games," Johnson says. "I'd bake cookies and bring them to the game, maybe to give them a little 'touch of home.'"
He made them for all the home games and road games back then. That's 24 cookies for 30-some games. He cut back to all home games, plus select road games, a few years ago.
Charger commitment, thy name is Jim Johnson.
"Oh," he says with a laugh, setting up a line about his fanatic ways: "I've been known to drive to Des Moines after a meeting and make it there just in time to see the last five minutes of a game."
Johnson rarely, if ever, missed a game while his son was playing. His drive for the Chargers can be traced to a scene he witnessed while attending a game years ago. Seems a man went down during a game and couldn't get up. Jim Johnson saw it and made a pact with himself: "I said I wouldn't miss another game because I didn't know which game might be my last."
That was nearly two decades and a few hundred games ago.
"In a way, Jim is like a father or an uncle to our players," says Jake Shipley, a Briar Cliff assistant coach who earned All-American laurels as a junior five seasons ago. "You expect to see parents at home games, and get a word of encouragement from them, no matter how the game went. That's what Jim does: Win or lose, you get a cookie or a brownie and some words of encouragement."
Shipley then offers a testimonial: "Whether they're brownies, chocolate chip cookies, sugar cookies or something else, they're great."
He laughs and recalls how Johnson sometimes teases recruits when they visit campus. "He'll come up to us (coaches) when we're talking to a recruit and asks, 'Have you signed yet?'" Shipley says.
If the recruit hasn't signed, he receives one cookie. If the student-athlete has signed, he gets two. (The chocolate chip cookie recipe, Johnson says, comes from Barbara Sloniker, executive vice president of the Siouxland Chamber of Commerce. Sloniker tells me it's a Nestle Toll House recipe with a couple of tweaks, including the secret ingredient: Vanilla pudding.)
"Jim is a great fan and an awesome guy to talk to right after games," says Erich Erdman, a dynamic Charger guard and leading scorer this season. "His cookies and treats are delicious, but his bits of advice and support after games are what is really important to us guys."
Jim Johnson's cookies began their tasty trail with Mike Beard, then the head coach at BC in 1999. Those treats continued as Todd Barry, now retired, and Nic Nelson, BCU's current athletic director, both left indelible marks on the program, a unit now entrusted to rookie head coach Mark Svagera, who has the team shooting, defending and, well, chewing its way to a 16-2 record and a No. 5 national ranking.
"Trent worked at Briar Cliff in the Admissions Department for a couple of years after he graduated," Jim says. "He was also an assistant junior varsity coach for Todd Barry and it's a relationship that continues today."
Barry takes his seat to Trent Johnson's right on Saturday evening, mere feet from Jim Johnson and the former "First Couple" of Briar Cliff, Jim and Bev Wharton. Conversation ranges from Cone Park fun to Sioux City Journal stories to bowl victories secured by Iowa and Iowa State.
Jim Johnson's cookies occupy a spot near his mid-court seat. Not long after the final horn sounds, he makes his way toward the team and shares his gifts as the Chargers chow down, basking in the warmth of another win.
Johnson himself didn't enjoy a stellar career on the hardwood. He laughs about it. "I'm 6-foot, 5-inches, but I couldn't walk and chew gum at the same time," he says. "I figured debate was more my thing."
For decades, Johnson has worked to put his stamp on a successful career in real estate development, for Urban, Inc. His basketball prowess has since been confined to off-court treats, not on-court feats. The debate team, he says, amounted to winning recipe for him.
"I have two artificial knees and an artificial hip," he says, declaring how his playing days ended long, long ago. "But, I'm still talking."
And, still baking.
SIOUX CITY | Record low temperatures this week haven't been kind to Sioux City's water infrastructure, as city utilities staff have reported a handful of main breaks and several calls for frozen pipes.
Water infrastructure throughout Iowa has faced stress during a bitter late-December and early January cold snap. In Sioux City, underground utilities superintendent Jon O'Brien said the city has experienced at least four water main breaks over the past seven days, as well as a rash of frozen pipe reports.
Last Friday, a main broke in the area of 2700 Myrtle St. Then, on Tuesday, a break caused the closure of Third Street near Jones and Jackson streets. O'Brien said two more mains broke Thursday, one on Correctionville Road near Gordon Drive and another on Pierce Street by 38th Place.
Firefighters also blamed cold temperatures for a sprinkler system pipe break that leaked considerable amounts of water at the Howard Johnson Hotel Tuesday morning.
O'Brien said while "360 breaks" on water mains can happen year-round, in the winter dry underground conditions followed by freezing can cause problems.
"It's the frost on the ground that does it. It makes the ground move," O'Brien said. "You get the freezing action, which puts compression on the ground."
Lows on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday bottomed out in the 20s below zero, breaking previous cold records for those three consecutive days, according to the National Weather Service in Sioux Falls.
O'Brien said while he couldn't immediately attribute all of this week's main breaks to the cold weather, the frigid conditions haven't helped.
He said the amount of time it takes a city crew to repair a water main depends on the break, but that typically they can be fixed within four or five hours.
Each year, Sioux City budgets money for emergency water main repairs. O'Brien didn't immediately know how much the recent breaks will cost the city to repair but said he will be finalizing a report tallying the number of breaks and cost over the previous calendar year within the next few weeks.
To keep pipes from freezing, O'Brien recommended residents keep a small stream water running in cold weather, approximately equal to the circumference of the lead inside a pencil. He said water temperatures dipping below 40 degrees are when he becomes concerned about frozen pipes.
Infrastructure will continue to be a point of emphasis in the fiscal year 2019 budget, which the City Council will begin discussing later this month.
According to the current city capital improvements budget, as of January 2017 more than 30 percent of Sioux City's water infrastructure were more than 60 years old, the traditional age at which water mains need to be replaced.
After they took their oaths of office Tuesday, newly-elected City Council members Dan Moore, Pete Groetken and Alex Watters all remarked that funding infrastructure repairs and replacement as a priority in the upcoming year.
"Infrastructure is really expensive, but I think we have to take a long, hard look at the budgeting process and say when we're looking at water mains, when we're looking at roads, we need to make sure that we're addressing these head-on rather than being reactive," Watters said.
O'Brien said while age is a good indicator for need of replacement, some older water mains remain strong while younger ones break. He said other conditions such as the ground surrounding the mains and way they are installed also play a role.
Around Iowa, several cities have experienced water woes of their own over the past week. Portions of Grand Falls Casino & Golf Resort in Larchwood, Iowa, sustained up to a million dollars in water damage in the early morning hours on Dec. 30. The damage was caused by frozen pipes in the facility’s fire suppression system that burst due to the cold.
In the Waterloo, Iowa, suburb of Evansdale, a water tower froze Monday, causing residents to lose service for a time. A Davenport, Iowa, water main break last week plus additional snow was responsible for entirely covering one woman's vehicle in solid ice, according to media reports.
-- The Journal's Ty Rushing contributed to this report.