Feds take over marijuana prosecutions amid hemp legalization

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – After multiple state attorneys across Florida announced the legalization of hemp would delay or even halt some marijuana prosecutions, the United States Attorney for the Northern District of Florida has announced the feds will take the reins. 

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 re-evaluate how they handle cases involving marijuana.

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

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

Lawrence Keefe, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Florida who oversees 25 Florida counties, has now 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,” Campbell said.

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,” Campbell said.

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

But Richard Greenberg, president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, 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,” Greenberg said.

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, Capitol News Service did not receive a response when it reached out to his office for more details.