“I think Jeff Sessions has forgotten about the constitution and the tenth amendment,” California Republican Dana Rohrabacher said in a Thursday press call with four other pro-marijuana legalization Congresspeople. The call was in response to the announcement that day by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to withdraw the Cole memo, an Obama-era policy that effectively instructed feds to lay off marijuana businesses in states that have legalized the drug except in cases where, for instance, dealers were sending pot across state lines. Under Sessions’ new policy, US attorneys have the discretion to prosecute weed cases.
“Do you know anyone who supports the attorney general’s decision?” a reporter asked during the call. No, replied members of the Cannabis Caucus.
As the bipartisan group of lawmakers emphasized throughout the call, the idea of the Department of Justice going after legal marijuana businesses in the eight states—and the District of Colombia—that have voted to legalize the drug infringes on states’ rights and goes against the will of the people. It can’t be emphasized enough that prosecuting marijuana cases is unpopular. Sixty-four percent of Americans, and 51 percent of Republicans, favor federal legislation.
The reasons are obvious enough. “Marijuana is a lot better than alcohol. I want to stress that because alcohol creates violence, and I’ve seen great people cut somebody’s head off drunk. You don’t see that with marijuana. I’m not condoning it. I’m saying that was the effect upon them, and now they smoke,” Alaska congressman Don Young told me last April.
Studies have shown that it’s safer to consume than alcohol or tobacco, two drugs that are legal to use in the United States. Nevertheless, in Sessions’ reversal of the Cole memo, he asserted, “Marijuana is a dangerous drug and… marijuana activity is a serious crime.” (Sessions once reportedly quipped that he used to think the Klu Klux Klan was “OK until I found out they smoked pot.”)
Congress has been quick to condemn Sessions’ latest anti-legal marijuana decree. Cory Gardner, Colorado’s Republican senator, vowed to hold up “DOJ nominees, until the Attorney General lives up to the commitment he made to me prior to his confirmation.” (The commitment being that he would leave legal weed alone.)
“Effectively, this leaves the legal status of marijuana up to 93 US attorneys across the country. Whatever side of the bed these government bureaucrats wake up on can literally determine the freedom and liberty or the imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of American citizens,” Colorado Democrat Jared Polis explained during Thursday’s call.
“I’m convinced that the backlash that a number of my colleagues have talked about is going to be felt. I think the Attorney General is actually creating problems for the Trump administration,” Oregon Democrat Earl Blumenauer added.
Even members of Congress who hadn’t been explicitly pro-marijuana legalization before this move spoke out in support of state marijuana laws. “Although I did not support the 2014 ballot initiative to legalize marijuana, it strongly passed and I passionately believe in democracy and the principles of states’ rights,” Senator Dan Sullivan, an Alaska Republican, wrote in a press release on Thursday. “Today’s action by the Department of Justice… could be the impetus necessary for Congress to find a permanent legislative solution for states that have chosen to regulate the production, sale and use of marijuana.”
I couldn’t find any senator or representative who has gone on the record supporting Sessions’ latest move, though it was cheered by anti-marijuana groups like Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM). “This is a good day for public health. The days of safe harbor for multi-million dollar pot investments are over,” SAM president Kevin A. Sabet said in a press release. “DOJ’s move will slow down the rise of Big Marijuana.”
Although the Congresspeople from states with legal weed are concerned about Sessions changing DOJ policy, they were quick to point out that even after the Cole memo was issued in 2013, Obama’s DOJ was still somewhat hostile to legal marijuana. The solution, they believe, is passing a bill that prevents the federal government from interfering with state marijuana rights, and ending federal marijuana prohibition.
“The Cole [memo] wasn’t going to make it any easier or anymore difficult to put into legislation those things that we really need to put in [to protect legal marijuana],” Rohrabacher said. “As we go back into the session, there would be no open discussion of it, and our constituencies wouldn’t have been alerted of it had the Cole memo not been withdrawn. So this is a big plus for our efforts.”