Obama-era guidance allowing states to legalize marijuana without federal interference remains in effect, according to Jeff Sessions.
During a recent congressional oversight hearing, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions admitted that protections from federal interference into state legal cannabis business remain in effect. Despite Sessions’ previous statements against legal marijuana, the administration seems interested in maintaining the Obama administration’s hands-off approach. This news could provide a sense of relief for the booming cannabis industry in the U.S.
A Hands Off Policy?
During the previous administration, the Department of Justice, led first by Eric Holder and later by Loretta Lynch, allowed states to enact and enforce their own cannabis laws, provided that states set certain restrictions.
“Our policy is the same, really, fundamentally as the Holder-Lynch policy, which is that the federal law remains in effect and a state can legalize marijuana for its law enforcement purposes but it still remains illegal with regard to federal purposes,” Sessions said.
The policy Sessions referred to is laid out in the Cole Memo, named for the former Eric Holder deputy who authored it in 2013. In the memo, the federal government set out certain criteria that would allow states to implement their own laws without federal intervention.
Sessions made the comments in response to a question from Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH) during the recent annual House Judiciary Committee oversight hearing.
Later in the hearing, Sessions faced questioning regarding the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment. The attorney general said, “I believe we are bound by” the federal budget amendment that prevents the federal government from spending money to interfere with state medical cannabis laws. Earlier this year, Sessions sent a letter to congressional leadership asking that they not continue the annual rider into the next fiscal year. They did anyway.
These responses from Sessions comes less than a month after his vague response to a question about his department’s plan to prosecute state legal cannabis businesses. “I can’t comment on the existence of an investigation at this time,” he said.
Cannabis Safer Than Heroin
During the hearing, Sessions also conceded that cannabis is not as dangerous as heroin. When Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) made the argument that cannabis isn’t as harmful as heroin, Sessions agreed, “I think that’s correct.”
Under current federal law, cannabis and heroin are both classified under Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, a category reserved for drugs with no medical value and a high potential for abuse. It is thought by many that if cannabis is safer than heroin, it shouldn’t be scheduled with the same severity.
As attorney general, Sessions has the power to reschedule cannabis if he felt so compelled. “In a nutshell, administrative rescheduling begins when an actor—the Secretary of Health and Human Services or an outside interested party—files a petition with the Attorney General or he initiates the process himself,” John Hudak and Grace Wallack wrote for the Brookings Institution. However, it is unlikely that Sessions will take this action.
“I reject the idea that America will be a better place if marijuana is sold in every corner store,” Sessions said in a speech last March. “And I am astonished to hear people suggest that we can solve our heroin crisis by legalizing marijuana—so people can trade one life-wrecking dependency for another that’s only slightly less awful. Our nation needs to say clearly once again that using drugs will destroy your life.”
“Good People Don’t Smoke Marijuana”
Also at the hearing, Sessions was questioned on his comment that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.”
“Is John Kasich a good person?” Rep. Cohen asked. “George Pataki, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, George Bush, Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Judge Clarence Thomas — which of those are not good people?”
Sessions responded that he became a federal prosecutor in the 1980s “and the drugs were being used widely, over a period of years it became unfashionable, unpopular, and it was seen as such that good people didn’t use marijuana. That was the context of that statement.”
In an appearance at the Heritage Foundation last month, Sessions elaborated on his disdain for society’s shifting attitudes toward marijuana and other drugs.
“We’ve got to reestablish first a view that you should say no. People should say no to drug use,” he said. “This whole country needs to be not so lackadaisical about drugs. … Much of the addiction starts with marijuana. It’s not a harmless drug.”
What This Means for Cannabis Businesses
For the time being, at least, it would appear that cannabis businesses in legal marijuana states can breathe a sigh of relief and such owners can keep an eye on building a successful cannabis industry without fear of federal prosecution.
However, it would also be prudent to keep the other eye on Jeff Sessions and the Trump administration. The U.S. Attorney General has made his position against marijuana legalization clear on many occasions in the past and has taken steps to try and hinder its progress; he may do so again.
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