U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions wants congressional leaders to drop a budget rider that effectively bars him from pursuing medical marijuana providers under federal anti-drug laws.
In his May 1 letter, Sessions called efforts to extend the “Farr-Rohrabacher” amendment “unwise.” The 2-year-old rider, a prohibition on spending Department of Justice money on prosecuting state-legal medical marijuana businesses, must be renewed with each budget cycle.
“The department must be in a position to use all laws available to combat the transnational drug organizations and dangerous drug traffickers who threaten American lives,” Sessions wrote in the letter, first reported by the website MassRoots.
The attorney general’s letter adds to the murkiness surrounding the Trump administration’s position on the conflict between the 29 states and Washington, D.C., where some form of marijuana use is legal and the federal government, which still classifies marijuana as a controlled substance, illegal in all forms.
Since his tenure as a U.S. senator from Alabama, Sessions has been clear that he does not support legalization, famously telling his Senate colleagues in a 2016 hearing that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.”
President Donald Trump has not been as definitive. As a candidate, he indicated several times that he supports medical marijuana and that laws governing recreational use should be left up to the states. In May, however, he issued a spending bill signing statement that said he would treat a prohibition on prosecuting state-legal medical marijuana operations “consistently with my constitutional responsibility to take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, appearing at a Public Policy of California event Tuesday, said Sessions “should worry about his own problems before he goes after people who use marijuana for medical purposes or recreational purposes.” He also predicted that Trump and Sessions won’t actually crack down on medical marijuana, which enjoys widespread support in public opinion polls. “The [public] position on this is way beyond them now,” Becerra said.
We asked lawyers in the marijuana industry for their thoughts on the Sessions letter to Congress. Here are highlights, edited for length and clarity.
Steve Schain, Hoban Law Group: “It’s part of the unfortunate yet predictable pattern we’re seeing from U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who seems incapable of grasping the healthful and financial benefits of legalized marijuana. Although this doesn’t move the panic needle further into the red, massive job and tax revenue losses will ensue if he gets his way.”
Diana Romza-Kutz, Thompson Coburn: “We need to continue to advise our clients that are in the medical marijuana industry that from a federal standpoint, they are in a precarious, what’s-next position. That needs to be made clear to investors. And they need to make very, very sure that they are in strict compliance with state regulations where medical marijuana is legal.”
Hilary Bricken, Harris Bricken: “I am troubled by Attorney General Sessions’ willingness to ignore the will of the American people and the facts and science regarding medical cannabis. The Rohrabacher-Farr amendment is a solid piece of bipartisan legislation that allows states to behave as laboratories of democracy—as intended by our Constitution. Though I will continue keeping an eye on the Justice Department and, in particular, what it will do with the 2013 Cole Memo, Sessions’ efforts to reignite the failed war on cannabis do not keep me up at night as I still believe the government will in the end heed the views of the overwhelming majority of Americans who want to see medical cannabis legalized and protected.”
Courtney Gilligan Saleski, DLA Piper: “The tension among AG Sessions’ views on marijuana, the current trajectory of liberalization of marijuana laws, and the continued federal criminalization of marijuana [even medical marijuana] was bound to come to a head with a Sessions Justice Department. We will be watching to see what Congress does, but it is hard to imagine that the amendment will, in fact, be dropped in the current medical marijuana climate. We will also have to see whether the DOJ turns away from its Obama-era guidance and starts prosecuting marijuana crimes more aggressively again.”
Marc Zilversmit, defense attorney, San Francisco Bay Area: “Under the McIntosh decision, the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment only protects medical marijuana, and only protects cultivators, dispensaries and users that are in compliance with state law. AG Loretta Lynch also sent a letter and lobbied Congress to eliminate the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, and her efforts failed. There is no indication that AG Sessions will be any more successful. Sessions’ letter is inconsistent with his long-standing support for states’ rights.”
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