Anti-marijuana Attorney General Jeff Sessions tendered his resignation on Wednesday, one day after Republicans lost control of the House.
That left cannabis policy observers scrambling to find out where the temporary replacement at the top of the Department of Justice, Sessions’s Chief of Staff Matthew Whitaker, stands on marijuana.
Here’s what Marijuana Moment found in our initial review.
During a 2014 primary debate for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination from Iowa, Whitaker sympathized with patients who benefit from marijuana ingredient cannabidiol (CBD). But, he also voiced concerns about the disconnect between state legalization efforts and the enforcement of federal law under the Obama administration.
During the debate, hosted by Iowa Public Television, he was asked about the state’s recent passage of a CBD-only medical cannabis law.
“First of all, I know a couple of families that are going to be positively impacted by what has happened in the state senate today,” he said. “And I applaud them for helping those families who need that help.”
Whitaker then turned to the Justice Department’s marijuana policy under President Barack Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder.
“But what we have is we have an attorney general that is telling state attorney generals, ‘if you disagree with a law, you don’t have to enforce it.’ And I am gravely concerned that we are now going to go back and forth between who’s in the White House and what their drug enforcement policy is, and you’ll see under what we have now—where you have Colorado and other states legalizing it really with no federal interference—and then when we come back, we may have a different regulatory scheme.”
Well, then, what should Congress do to resolve those differences?
“I think Congress should regulate things that harm people, and that is the hard drugs and the like that dramatically hurt citizens, cause violent crime in our communities, and those should be regulated,” he said.
“But not marijuana?” the debate moderator asked.
“For me, I saw the impact of marijuana on our border,” he said, presumably referring to his time as a U.S. attorney. “And if you go to any of the counties in Texas where there’s an illegal importation of marijuana, there’s a tremendous amount of violence.”
Marijuana reform advocates have generally applauded the announcement of Sessions’s resignation, as the now former attorney general has a long history of demeaning cannabis consumers, disregarding research about the benefits of medical marijuana and upholding federal prohibition.
“Attorney General Jefferson Sessions was a national disgrace, NORML hopes he finds the time during his retirement to seek treatment for his affliction of 1950’s reefer madness,” NORML executive director Erik Altieri said in a press release.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) called the move a “major step forward for marijuana reform,” also noting that Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX), who has obstructed votes on marijuana-related legislation as chair of the House Rules Committee, was defeated in Tuesday’s midterm elections. The two are not related despite sharing the same last name and a disdain for cannabis.
Losing two Sessions, Jeff and Pete, in 24 hours is a major step forward for marijuana reform. https://t.co/ykR8eT8Rid
However, there’s also an argument to be made that Sessions’s departure from the office could ultimately pose threats to the legal cannabis movement. Sessions and President Donald Trump have had a contentious relationship almost from the start of the administration, and the attorney general’s reluctance to crack down on legal cannabis states could theoretically be attributed, in part, to that dynamic. The next attorney general could enjoy some more flexibility when it comes to enforcing federal marijuana laws.
For his part, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) said on Tuesday that he’s looking forward to “continuing to work with the President to fulfill his campaign position to leave the regulation of marijuana to the states.”
With respect to new leadership at DOJ, I will remain committed to defending the rule of law and the rights and decisions of Coloradans. I look forward to continuing to work with the President to fulfill his campaign position to leave the regulation of marijuana to the states.
Trump has already said he’s actively pursuing a permanent replacement for Sessions, so it’s unclear what, if anything, Whitaker could achieve during his temporary stint as acting attorney general, or how long his tenure will last.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers came together on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives to chat about their shared interest in marijuana reform for about 20 minutes on Tuesday night.
“Medical marijuana is like the Fourth of July,” Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) said. “It is almost universally accepted.”
Congressman Matt Gaetz (R-FL) took the opportunity to announce that he will soon introduce legislation — with the surprising support of House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) — that would ease restrictions on cannabis research:
“First, it will increase the number of people who are growing medical-grade cannabis for research purposes.
“Second, it will end the gag rule at the VA that precludes physicians from being able to consult and speak with their patients about the laws in their particular States.
“Third, it will create a safe harbor so that some of the finest medical institutions and universities in this great country will be able to research and partner with private sector entities to determine the potential that medical cannabis can have to improve people’s quality of life.
“And finally, this legislation will end the prohibition from having commercial, for-profit entities working in concert, in collaboration with some of those very universities and medical institutions.”
Congressman Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), who convened the floor gathering, tore into U.S. Attorney General Jeff Session’s anti-marijuana moves.
“It is difficult for me to comprehend the logic behind blocking scientific research to analyze the medical applications of cannabis because I believe it is critical for policymakers to possess objective data on the effectiveness of cannabis as an alternative treatment for anxiety, depression, pain, psychosis, post-traumatic stress disorder, opioid addiction, and epilepsy. We owe it to American patients to open up the field of research on this,” he said on the floor. “Now, the only logical explanation I can think of is that the Attorney General knows the facts of this field of research won’t support his policies or the witch hunt he and his Department have been conducting on legal State-regulated operators across the country.”
Curbelo argued that Sessions’s rescission of an Obama-era policy protecting state marijuana laws was a gift to drug cartels.
“As I have said before in this Chamber, Mr. Speaker, the best ally that illegal operators like drug cartels and drug traffickers–who do not pay taxes, who target children, who have no safety standards for their products–the best ally they have are the policies that the Attorney General has embraced,” he said. “Because by continuing to hamstring Federal research, over tax, and stoke uncertainty, legally operating businesses that are State regulated, that pay taxes, that are helping patients who are suffering, can no longer compete. And when these businesses can no longer compete, people turn to the black market. So inadvertently, I hope, the Attorney General is actually doing a great favor to the criminals operating outside the law by punishing law-abiding Americans trying to control the substance and make it safer.”
The Florida GOP congressman closed by appealing to fellow Republicans’ professed reverence for individual liberty.
“Mr. Speaker, there are a lot of colleagues in this Chamber who say people should be able to buy whatever health insurance or get whatever kind of health coverage they want, and the government should interfere as little as possible, and I agree,” he said. “But on this issue, there seems to be a hypocrisy, and many colleagues want to impose a Federal view or a Federal perspective on States, on the people of States like Florida, who have already decided explicitly and clearly and overwhelmingly.”
See the original article published on Marijuana Moment below:
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions acknowledged before a key Senate panel on Wednesday that “there may well be some benefits from medical marijuana” and that it is “perfectly appropriate to study” cannabis.
But Sessions was also quick to dismiss a mounting body of evidence that legal marijuana access is associated with reduced opioid issues.
Acknowledging that he has seen some research indicating lower overdose deaths in states that allow cannabis in some form and that “science is very important,” the attorney general said he doesn’t “believe that will be sustained in the long run.”
Sessions also indicated that the federal government would soon take steps to license more entities to legally grow marijuana for research.
“We are moving forward and we will add fairly soon, I believe, the paperwork and reviews will be completed and we will add additional suppliers of marijuana under the controlled circumstances,” he said during an appearance before the Senate Appropriations Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Subcommittee.
In 2016, the Drug Enforcement Administration enacted a new policy intended to license more research cultivators, and he agency has reportedly since received at least 25 applications to participate in the new program. But it has not yet acted on any of them and, according to the Washington Post, that is because top Justice Department officials have stepped in to prevent DEA from approving any proposals.
In his answers, Sessions indicated that he thought opening up research could put the U.S. at risk of violating international drug treaties.
The “treaty requires certain controls in that process,” he said, adding that in his view, the “previous proposal violated that treaty.”
Sessions was responding to a line of questioning from U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), who said that “we’re all evolving on this issue, some quicker than others.”
There are “good civil rights reasons for decriminalizing and pursing a federalist approach around this,” the senator added.
Sessions did not offer a specific timeline for releasing a revised research cultivation approval process.
And despite acknowledging cannabis’s medical potential, he said he takes issue with the way it is currently consumed.
“Medical marijuana, as one physician told me, ‘whoever heard of taking a medicine when you have no idea how much medicine you’re taking and ingesting it in the fashion that it is, which is in itself unhealthy?’” Sessions said.
Advocates welcomed Session’s admission that marijuana can help patients, but said that the Justice Department needed to act on allowing research as well as make broader policy changes sooner rather than later.
“Over two million registered medical marijuana patients throughout the legal markets can attest to the attorney general’s newfound revelation,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal told Marijuana Moment in an interview. “What we need is better research on consumer grade marijuana and lawful protections for legal markets, not further deliberation from the DoJ.”
Later in the Senate hearing, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) cited a resolution approved by Alaska state lawmakers urging the federal government to respect local marijuana laws. She also attempted to elicit a commitment from the attorney general not to oppose congressional efforts to reform federal cannabis laws.
“I can’t make a commitment about what position we would take at this time, until we know what’s exactly involved,” he replied.
Sessions said, however, that “our priorities are fentanyl, heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine. People are dying by massive amounts as a result of those drugs. We have very few, almost zero, virtually zero small marijuana cases. But if they are a big deal and illegally acting, and violating federal law, our agents may work that case.”
In a CJS Approps Subcmte hearing I raised the conflicts between state & federal marijuana law, asking AG Jeff Sessions for assurances that the Department of Justice will act as an ally, rather than an obstacle, in considering future legislation respecting states’ rights. pic.twitter.com/UvFiTaW2Sg
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is facing questions from lawmakers about marijuana for his second day in a row of appearances on Capitol Hill, but he remains unwilling to give states a signal that they will be allowed to implement legalization without federal interference.
“Let’s be frank. What they’d like is a statement that they’ve been provided a safe harbor. I don’t believe I can give that,” he said. “They’ll just have to look and make their own decision about how they conduct a marijuana enterprise.”
Sessions was responding to a question from Congressman Derek Kilmer (D-WA) during a Thrusday hearing of the House Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee.
“The state of Washington and other states have either eliminated or virtually eliminated marijuana restrictions, some for medicine only and some for so-called recreational use,” Sessions said. “It remains a violation of federal law. That’s not off the books. The federal law is still enforceable throughout the country and I have felt it not appropriate for me to somehow give a safe harbor or protection to areas around the country where it still remains a violation of federal law.”
The attorney general made a point of saying he doesn’t think cannabis use is without harm.
“My view is that marijuana is not a healthy substance,” he said. “Whenever we talk about legalization and other such issues we need to make clear that we are not in any way suggesting that the consumption of marijuana is not harmful.”
But Sessions also noted that the Department of Justice was mostly focused on other drugs, such as fentanyl, heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin, as well as unlawful use of prescription medications, which he said lead to “addiction and death.”
But federal prosecutors are still free to enforce marijuana prohibition, he pointed out.
“United States attorneys in your home state and every state have been instructed to use their financial resources and capabilities and their judgement, after meeting with local law enforcement and local leaders, to pursue the case they think are important and worthy, and I can’t exclude marijuana from that,” Sessions said. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to do so.”
On Wednesday, during an appearance before a Senate committee, Sessions acknowledged that “there may well be some benefits from medical marijuana” and said that the Department of Justice would soon take steps to license more entities to legally grow marijuana for research.
See the original article published on Marijuana Moment below:
Furthering the mounting evidence that attitudes surrounding marijuana are shifting, a recent Survey USA poll found that two out of three Americans want the Trump Administration to support state cannabis laws as states continue to eye the 2018 elections as a battleground for legalization. Despite Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ very public disapproval of cannabis, the momentum for ending the prohibition of cannabis seems to be gaining strength, putting President Trump in an awkward position as states look to keep the federal government out of cannabis enforcement.
During the Obama years, the former president found himself in an unusual role for a Democratic president: supporting state’s rights over federal oversight when it came to marijuana. As the public debate about cannabis changed during Obama’s years in office, he put in place guidelines, known as the Cole Memorandum, that would keep federal prosecutors from pursuing cannabis cases, opening the door for states to shape their own policies. With findings from Survey USA as well as another poll from Quinnipiac, the momentum surrounding cannabis legalization appears to have carried into the Trump era.
What’s the Trump Administration’s stance?
The new administration brings about significant complications despite the very clear opinion of Americans on the issue, with much of the complexity coming courtesy of Attorney General Sessions. Not only has Sessions said that he will push back against changes in cannabis law but he has even asked congress to allow him to undercut some of the protections against prosecution put into play by Obama. Although it was denied by congress, this would have allowed Sessions to specifically target medical marijuana providers despite state law and the Obama-era precedent.
Even with Sessions’ vehement opposition to state law, however, the trends outlined by Survey USA are very clear – even with age groups and demographics that overwhelmingly voted for Trump. When asked whether states should enact their own cannabis laws, 72% of those 65 and older said that they should while support peaked at 80% for those between 18 and 49. As for prosecuting cannabis consumers in states that allow it, only 12% of respondents thought this was a good idea, kneecapping the possibility of a public mandate for Sessions’ attempt at stringent cannabis enforcement.
What’s the stance of the American People?
Perhaps sensing the public sentiment on the issue, President Trump himself has been reluctant to publicly support Sessions’ point of view even while signaling the possibility of greater enforcement. Part of the hesitance to back his attorney general on cannabis enforcement seems to stem from Trump’s own words on the campaign trail, as he once stated that “I think it should be up to the states, absolutely.” This support for state’s rights on cannabis enforcement has inevitably prompted marijuana advocates to cite Trump’s own words against his administration, including California’s Lieutenant Governor, Gavin Newsom.
While Sessions looks to undermine the public opinion and current state laws, states are getting even more aggressive when it comes to pursuing their own marijuana laws leading up to the 2018 mid-term elections. Even deep red states like Utah and Oklahoma are set to put medical marijuana legalization on the ballot in 2018 while states like Florida, Arizona, Mississippi, Missouri and Nebraska – all states Trump won – are expected to vote on full legalization for recreational purposes during the next election cycle.
Although finding bipartisan support for any issue has proven difficult in the current political mood, a variety of recent surveys suggest that cannabis advocates are poised for a major breakthrough on the state level. While both red and blue states are pursuing approval of cannabis for both recreational purposes and medical use, federal lawmakers still in favor of the cannabis prohibition are finding their viewpoints increasingly estranged from popular opinion. Although it will likely still take time to fully change federal law when it comes to cannabis, even cannabis’ fiercest critics are struggling to find any public support for interfering with state laws.