On Monday Alex Tse became Acting United States Attorney for the Northern District of California, which includes Sonoma, Marin, Napa and Solano counties.
Tse’s assumption of the position follows the resignation last week of Brian Stretch, and comes four days after Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Thursday issued a memo to all U.S. attorneys suggesting that they resume enforcement of federal law that defines cannabis as a dangerous drug and cannabis activity as serious crime. The memo refers to the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, where cannabis is classified as a drug in the same category as heroin.
The new appointment could significantly affect the emerging multi-billion-dollar cannabis industry in the North Bay and the rest of northern California, where federal drug busts in recent years brought fear to cultivators, processors, manufacturers, distributors, transporters and dispensaries of medical cannabis and now recreational pot. No one knows whether Tse will pursue cannabis prosecution, but it became clear last week that Sessions expects a higher level of scrutiny by federal authorities of the cannabis industry.
“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 prosecutors,” Sessions said. Those principles include weighing the seriousness of a crime, deterrent effect of prosecution and the cumulative impact of crimes on a community.
Sessions rescinded guidance of U.S. attorneys on cannabis, including a 2013 memo from Deputy Attorney General James Cole that suggested deferring to state law on cannabis prosecution except for large-scale criminal enterprise. Federal agencies have “not historically devoted resources to prosecuting individuals whose conduct is limited to possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use on private property,” the Cole memo said. Now that guidance is gone.
Since early 2016, Tse served as First Assistant U.S. Attorney under Stretch, and was chief of the department’s civil division since 2012. Tse graduated from UC Berkeley and attended Hastings School of Law in San Francisco. He was admitted to the State Bar of California in 1991.
Sessions did not appoint Tse, who assumed his position as acting U.S. Attorney under the department’s succession policy. Tse will have the position until Sessions appoints him or another candidate as interim U.S. Attorney, or Trump appoints a permanent U.S. Attorney and that appointment is confirmed by the Senate.
Sessions has made recent appointments that indicate a shift toward greater enforcement of laws regarding cannabis. So far there is no clear sign whether any of these appointees will pursue prosecution against those involved in cannabis business made legal in California.
There are 94 U.S. attorneys nationwide, with four in California. Effective Friday, Sessions appointed Nicola Hanna as interim U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California, which includes Los Angeles and several counties to the east and north. Hanna was a partner in the Gibson Dunn law firm, and practiced in Orange County.
Hanna served as Assistant United States Attorney for the state’s southern district in San Diego from 1995 to 1998. He was Deputy Chief of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force, where he prosecuted crimes involving money laundering and narcotics trafficking.
On Nov. 16, 2017, Robert Troyer was appointed by Sessions as interim U.S. Attorney for Colorado. Colorado was one of the first states to legalize recreational pot, in 2012. Starting in 1999, Troyer spent five years prosecuting drug and violent-crime cases for the DOJ’s Colorado office. He was First Assistant U.S. Attorney there since 2010.