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Mass. U.S. Attorney Elaborates On Approaches To Marijuana, Immigration

U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling sits down with members of the media in his office on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018.
Sam Doran
State House News Service
U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling sits down with members of the media in his office on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018.

Opioid crimes are his top drug enforcement priority, but U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling told reporters Wednesday that his enforcement of federal marijuana laws could ensnare anyone from an hourly wage employee at a marijuana dispensary to a bank that opens an account for a pot shop.

During a meeting with reporters at the federal courthouse, Lelling, a recent appointee of President Donald Trump, repeated that he will not rule out bringing criminal cases against participants in the forthcoming state-legal retail marijuana industry.

"It puts the banks in a bind. I understand that," Lelling said. Marijuana distribution is unambiguously illegal under federal law and he cannot preemptively rule out anyone for prosecution, he said.

While state Cannabis Control Commission members have expressed interest in conferring with Lelling, the prosecutor said he can't meet with the panel.

Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said he has not met Trump, and he declined to say how he voted in the presidential contest.

"The department won't allow me to meet with a regulatory body, and I hate to hide behind that but I think ultimately that's right," Lelling said. He said, "A meeting like that is a recipe in frustration. I simply can't give it to them."

Lelling also said he has never smoked marijuana.

The top prosecutor has previously made clear that his focus would be on bulk traffickers. In a Jan. 4 statement, Lelling said, "This office will pursue federal marijuana crimes as part of its overall approach to reducing violent crime, stemming the tide of the drug crisis, and dismantling criminal gangs, and in particular the threat posed by bulk trafficking of marijuana, which has had a devastating impact on local communities."

Trump's pick to enforce federal laws within Massachusetts said the office will place more emphasis on immigration crimes, an area of focus for his office in 2017.

"When it comes to immigration enforcement, we will be more aggressive," Lelling said, noting the president has emphasized that policy. He said, "I think you will see increased immigration enforcement from my office."

Corruption within state government will also remain a focus of the office that brought more than 100 counts against former Sen. Brian Joyce.

"It's still a priority for the office," Lelling said. He said, "Public corruption cases, you need the feds."

A graduate of Binghamton University who earned his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1994, Lelling had 16 years' experience as a federal prosecutor when Trump nominated him for the post last September. The U.S. Senate confirmed the nomination on a voice vote Dec. 14.

With a friend from high school in Spring Valley, New York, Lelling co-wrote a graphic novel about a pair of investigators tracking down super weapons, according to a profile of him by WGBH. A registered Republican, Lelling was hired by the Department of Justice in 2001 and joined a team of prosecutors that traveled the country investigating hate crimes, according to WGBH, which said he has worked for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Massachusetts the past dozen years. The 47-year-old also worked as a prosecutor in the Eastern District of Virginia.

The top Bay State federal prosecutor's task changed on Jan. 4, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded an Obama administration policy dating back to 2013 to essentially look the other way on state-regulated marijuana enterprises.

Massachusetts voters legalized the retail sale of marijuana in 2016, and the Cannabis Control Commission has spent the past few months putting together regulations to govern the sale of the intoxicant.

Pressed by pro-pot activists to clarify his approach in light of Sessions' memo, Lelling on Jan. 8 said he could not "provide assurances that certain categories of participants in the state-level marijuana trade will be immune from federal prosecution," and he did not waver from that stance Wednesday.

On Jan. 12, Lelling's office announced charges against two Massachusetts men for allegedly running an illegal operation to grow marijuana for sale. Peter Molle Jr. and Eric Vallee were featured in a magazine article that discussed their marijuana cultivation, according to prosecutors, who said authorities found commercial-sized growing operations and marijuana packaged for sale at central Massachusetts properties belonging to the two. Lelling's office noted each defendant faces a mandatory sentence of five years and up to 40 years imprisonment.

Lelling said he has not met Trump and declined to say how he voted in the presidential contest. No one asked him about his presidential vote during his interviews for the job, said Lelling, who said he met with Sessions and believes the attorney general does not want to micromanage local prosecutors.

Prosecutors in his office should pursue "ambitious cases," said Lelling, who said the public does not benefit from a "risk averse" prosecutor's office.

The Trump appointee also acknowledged that he represents an administration in an area where the president is not popular and said he hopes to continue to have collaborative relationships with local and state police.

"I'm appointed by the president to pursue the president's law enforcement agenda," Lelling said.

One "refreshingly bipartisan" area of agreement is that opioids should be a top priority, according to Lelling, who said the 14 drug prosecutors in his office are focused on opioids and federal prosecutors are well positioned to take down suppliers.

Federal prosecutors have had success taking down the notorious and violent MS 13 gang in New England and the office is now working on cases against other violent groups seeking to fill that vacuum, Lelling said.

This report was originally published by State House News Service.

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