An Obama-era memo that provides guidance for how states can avoid interference with their marijuana laws is still federal policy, the U.S. Department of Justice’s second-highest-ranking official said in two Congressional hearings on Tuesday. But he added that it might not be the case for long.
“At the moment, the memorandum is still in effect,” Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies. “Maybe there will be changes to it in the future but we’re still operating under that policy, which is an effort to balance the conflicting interests with regard to marijuana.”
He was responding to a question from Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who referred to a letter that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions sent to Congress asking that lawmakers not renew a separate federal budget rider that prevents the Justice Department from spending money to interfere with state medical cannabis laws.
MassRoots exclusively reported the existence of that letter on Monday.
The Obama-era enforcement memorandum in question, drafted in 2013 by then-Deputy Attorney General James Cole, laid out eight criteria that, if followed by states, would generally mean that the federal government would allow them to implement their own marijuana laws without interference.
In April, Sessions directed a task force to review possible marijuana enforcement policy changes and issue recommendations by July 27.
In a separate hearing before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies, also on Monday, Rosenstein later said that he’s “not aware of any proposal to change” the Cole memo, and that it “remains our policy [though] there may be a opportunity to review it in the future.”
In the Senate hearing Rosenstein said that marijuana is “a very difficult issue for parents of teenagers, like me who have to provide guidance to our kids.”
He added that he has talked with the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration and agreed that “from a legal and scientific perspective, marijuana is an unlawful drug. It’s properly scheduled under Schedule I.”
That category — the most restrictive under the Controlled Substances Act — is supposed to be reserved for drugs with no medical value and a high potential for abuse.
Murkowski said her state’s marijuana legalization law, which voters approved in 2014, has a “regulatory regime [that is] is a fairly strong one and consistent with the Cole Memorandum.”
She said that ongoing federal prohibition creates problems for state-legal cannabis businesses when it comes to banking and making tax payments.
Rosenstein said that it is a “high priority” for him to discuss marijuana policy with incoming U.S. attorneys.
“We’re responsible for enforcing the law,” he said. “It’s illegal and than is the federal policy with regard to marijuana.”
Murkowski responded with one word: “Confusing.”
Sessions has at points described the Obama enforcement policy as “valuable” and “valid,” but suggested that he would prefer some changes or perhaps greater enforcement.
Sessions appeared on Tuesday before the Senate Intelligence Committee to discuss the ongoing Russia investigation, and marijuana did not come up during the proceedings.