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Amid Lab Testing Confusion, U.S. Attorney Wants To Prosecute Weed Cases In Lieu Of The State

U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Florida Larry Keefe
Ryan Dailey
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Florida Larry Keefe
Credit Ryan Dailey / WFSU-FM
The Florida Channel
U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Florida Larry Keefe

The U.S. Attorney for Florida’s Northern District says he’s willing to review and prosecute marijuana cases that the state attorney will not. The move comes after State Attorney Jack Campbell said last month he's pressing pause on prosecuting marijuana cases in light of a new hemp law.

Confusion over the new law, legalizing the cultivation and sale of hemp, led Campbell last month to make the decision – his rationale for which was based on the efficacy of laboratory testing.  

“There’s literally no lab, no state lab in the state of Florida, that can do testing and say ‘This is hemp,’ or ‘No, this is marijuana,’” Campbell explained in July.

Hemp and marijuana come from the same plant, and field tests police use can’t tell the difference between the two. 

Now, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Florida Larry Keefe has stepped in, releasing a statement Thursday night that his office will review and potentially prosecute marijuana cases in federal court. It advises local police departments and sheriff’s offices of Keefe’s willingness to do so, and requests state attorneys allow their assistants to be temporarily sworn in as ‘special assistant U.S. Attorneys’ to assist in prosecution of the cases.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s office had not answered WFSU’s questions about specifics prior to this story’s publishing. But, Campbell says he sees it as a helping hand.

“Basically, the federal government has resources beyond the state,” Campbell told WFSU Friday. “I don’t think that’s a surprise to anyone, and I think that’s – I wish I had the resources of the DEA and the FBI, and I appreciate Mr. Keefe being willing to bring that to bare.”

Asked if he thinks those federal resources include, or are specifically referencing testing labs, Campbell says he doesn’t yet know – but thinks it’s likely.

“My assumption is that either the DEA or the FBI, or some other federal entity, would be able to do the testing that we’re in the process of figuring out,” Campbell said.

The U.S. Attorney’s statement doesn’t get very specific about the threshold a marijuana offense would have to cross to be prosecuted in federal court. But it does say federal prosecutors would consider the seriousness of the crime, the deterrent effect of criminal prosecution and the cumulative impact of crimes on particular communities. Campbell points out it’s entirely up to Keefe.

“He's the U.S. attorney, so he could decide on the parameters,” Campbell said. “He seems to put some language in there suggesting that he has some type of decisions on where to set the gauge, so to speak.”

Confusion surrounding the prosecution of minor marijuana offenses, in a post-hemp law state, has extended far beyond North Florida. Local law enforcement around the state have halted marijuana arrests in light of the new law. In South Florida, Miami-Dade and Martin County officials have arrived at the same conclusion.

It’s also a problem in other states like Texas. In June, the Texas District and County Attorneys Association issued an advisory that says the state’s laboratories aren’t capable of distinguishing hemp from weed 

Meanwhile, as Florida’s Department of Agriculture continues to craft rules for its hemp program, a spokesperson for the agency has said it’s looking into the issue.

Copyright 2020 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Ryan Dailey is a reporter/producer for WFSU/Florida Public Radio. After graduating from Florida State University, Ryan went into print journalism working for the Tallahassee Democrat for five years. At the Democrat, he worked as a copy editor, general assignment and K-12 education reporter.