Sessions Admits He Can’t Arrest Everyone For Marijuana

By Tom Angell | March 09, 2017

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is remaining coy about the Trump administration's approach to marijuana, but he admitted in a new interview that the Department of Justice just doesn't have enough resources to go after every cannabis consumer, cultivator and retailer in legal states even if it wanted to.

"It’s not possible for the federal government, of course, to take over everything the local police used to do in a state that’s legalized it," Sessions said on Hugh Hewitt's nationally syndicated radio show on Thursday.

Hewitt, a legalization opponent, pressed the attorney general to use federal racketeering laws to make an example out of a targeted marijuana business.

"One RICO prosecution against one marijuana retailer in one state that has so-called legalization ends this façade and this flaunting of the Supremacy Clause," the host said. "Will you be bringing such a case?"

Sessions didn't take the bait. While the transcript shows the attorney general immediately responded with "We will…," the audio makes it clear that he was using it as a transitional phrase to more vaguely talk about the administration's approach.

"Marijuana is against federal law, and that applies in states where they may have repealed their own anti-marijuana laws," he said. "So yes, we will enforce law in an appropriate way nationwide."

But Hewitt pressed the racketeering approach again, saying:

"It would literally take one racketeering influence corrupt organization prosecution to take all the money from one retailer, and the message would be sent. I mean, if you want to send that message, you can send it. Do you think you’re going to send it?"

But Sessions dismissed the idea, saying, "I think it’s a little more complicated than one RICO case, I’ve got to tell you."

However, he made it clear that he isn't happy with how legalization is being carried out in states that have ended prohibition.

"Places like Colorado, it’s just sprung up a lot of different independent entities that are moving marijuana," he said. "And it’s also being moved interstate, not just in the home state. And neighbors are complaining, and filed lawsuits against them. So it’s a serious matter, in my opinion."

Hewitt noted in the interview that he'll have a piece arguing for increased federal interference with state marijuana laws in Sunday's Washington Post.

Whereas President Trump repeatedly pledged during the campaign that he would respect state marijuana laws, reform advocates are concerned over his picking Sessions, who has a long history of criticizing efforts to reform cannabis policies, as the nation's top law enforcer.

Last year, for example, the then-U.S. senator from Alabama said "good people don't smoke marijuana" and repeatedly criticized the Obama administration's approach of generally respecting the right of states to set their own cannabis policies. Since being nominated and confirmed as attorney general, however, Sessions has been much more guarded in response to questions about how the federal government should react to local policies even as he has reiterated personal opposition to legalization.

During his confirmation hearing, Sessions called existing guidelines on how states can avoid interference "valuable," but indicated that compliance probably isn't being tracked as closely as it should be, saying he wouldn't commit to never enforcing federal law. In answers to follow-up written questions, he said he would "review and evaluate those policies, including the original justifications for the memorandum, as well as any relevant data and how circumstances may have changed or how they may change in the future.”

More recently, in a speech before state attorneys general, Sessions took issue with arguments that marijuana can be an alternative to deadly opioids and, in a separate briefing with reporters, he implied that cannabis can lead to violence.

A poll released last month found that 71 percent of U.S. voters oppose federal interference with state marijuana laws.

Tom Angell

Tom Angell is a senior political correspondent for MassRoots. A 15-year veteran in the cannabis law reform movement, he covers the policy and politics of marijuana. Separately, he serves as chairman of the nonprofit Marijuana Majority and is editor of the daily Marijuana Moment newsletter.

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