Many marijuana industry professionals and cannabis consumers are concerned about the prospect of ardent legalization opponent Jeff Sessions becoming U.S. attorney general.
A handful Democratic senators who are also worried about what Sessions would do in response to state cannabis laws as head of the Department of Justice took to the floor of the Senate on Tuesday to raise the issue.
Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii called Sessions’s views on marijuana “out of the mainstream.”
Referencing Sessions’s remark that “good people don’t smoke marijuana,” Schatz said, “Tell that to the cancer victim,” relating the story of a “good friend” who has stage IV cancer.
The vote to confirm Sessions, currently a Republican senator from Alabama, is expected to take place on Wednesday. During his confirmation hearing and in response to written questions from fellow senators, he has been fairly guarded in indicating whether his Justice Department would continue the Obama administration’s general approach of mostly respecting the right of states to implement their own cannabis laws without federal interference.
Sessions did call the previous administration’s guidelines “valuable” but said that he would not commit to “never enforcing federal law.”
Schatz said that “the respect for federalism reflected in the [Obama] Justice Department’s guidance should be right in line with conservative values,” adding:
“There is a bipartisan consensus now: the drug war is a failure. The drug war did not work. The drug war did not decrease the percentage of people utilizing illegal drugs. Every time the government succeeded in shutting down a drug trafficking ring, another would pop up. And harsh penalties didn’t slow addiction rates, they just incarcerated mostly young men. They didn’t slow the flow of drugs, instead they crowded prisons, burdened taxpayers and increased drug-related violence in other countries.
“So now is the time to shift our strategy and focus on helping people who struggle with addiction. We also need to respect the decision in many cities and states to decriminalize drug possession. It’s up to them to decide how to provide relief to residents who could benefit from utilizing medical marijuana.”
Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, who admitted that she did not vote for her state’s marijuana legalization law, said she was nonetheless “here to advocate for my state.”
She decried how Sessions has “refused to respect the rights of states who have democratically chosen to either legalize marijuana for medical or recreational use,” calling it “an important issue for us in the Pacific Northwest.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) briefly decried Sessions’s previously voiced preference for “aggressively prosecuting marijuana offenses.”
(Under a motion from Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate later voted to prevent Warren from further participating in the floor debate after she allegedly impugned a fellow senator — Sessions — by reading a letter that Coretta Scott King wrote in the 1980s opposing his nomination to be a federal judge.)
And even Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, one of Congress’s most ardent opponents of cannabis law reform, indicated she’s concerned about how Sessions would respond to local moves to end prohibition.
Noting that she’s a strong believer in enforcing drug laws, Feinstein admitted that there are “difficult questions about what actions the Justice Department would take in states that have legalized marijuana in some way or another under their own laws.”
She said the “bottom line” is that “sensitivity and good judgement are needed in prosecutorial decisions” because resources need to be “used wisely.”
Despite the strong opposition from Democrats, however, Sessions is expected to be confirmed on a mostly if not entirely party line vote.
For now, the Obama administration’s “Cole Memo” on how states can avoid federal interference with their marijuana laws remains on the Justice Department website.