Sessions Announces Federal Marijuana Review

By Tom Angell | April 06, 2017

The Trump administration just officially began the process of reviewing the current Department of Justice policy that mostly allows states to implement their own marijuana laws even in light of conflicting federal prohibitions.

In a memo sent to federal prosecutors and the heads of Justice Department agencies on Wednesday, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said that the Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety will reevaluate the federal government’s approach to  marijuana and other criminal justice issues.

“Task Force subcommittees will also undertake a review of existing policies in the areas of charging, sentencing and marijuana to ensure consistency with the Department’s overall strategy on reducing violent crime and with the Administration’s goals and priorities,” the memo says.

A press release announcing the move says that a subcommittee of the task force will be charged with “evaluating marijuana enforcement policy.”

That is a reference to the so-called “Cole Memo,” an Obama-era Justice Department document that lays out criteria for how states can avoid federal interference with their cannabis policies.

While Sessions has previously said that the Obama enforcement policy — which he has described as “valuable” and “valid” — is being reviewed, the new memo to Justice Department personnel about the task force provides the first written description about the process under which changes will be considered.

The membership of the task force, which was created by a presidential executive order, will be determined by Sessions and be “drawn from relevant Department components, and will include the Director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the Administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Director of the FBI and the Director of the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS),” according to a February announcement.

Sessions has asked the task force to issue recommendations to him by July 27, so it seems unlikely that there will be any drastic federal marijuana policy changes until after that date.

Earlier this week, the governors of Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington State — the first four states to enact legalization — wrote to Sessions and U.S Treasury Sec. Steven Mnuchin to request a continuation of Obama administration marijuana policies.

“Overhauling the Cole Memo is sure to produce unintended and harmful consequences,” the governors wrote. “Changes that hurt the regulated market would divert existing marijuana product into the black market and increase dangerous activity in both our states and our neighboring states.”

They also asked that federal officials do them the courtesy of consulting with legalized states before announcing any cannabis enforcement changes.

But in an interview on Wednesday, Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee (D) said that Sessions has so far ignored his request for a meeting to discuss marijuana issues.

While President Trump repeatedly pledged during the campaign that he would respect state marijuana laws, reform advocates were alarmed by 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.” He also 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 a press conference last month, however, Sessions said that the Cole Memo is “valid” and admitted that even if the federal government wanted to crack down on state marijuana laws it would not be able to arrest every business operator.

“Essentially we’re not able to go into a state and pick up the work that the police and sheriffs have been doing for decades,” he said.

During his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing in January, Sessions called the Cole Memo “valuable” but suggested that he thought its provisions might not have been enforced strictly enough under the prior administration.

The new Justice Department task force will also look into “developing violent crime reduction strategies, supporting prevention and re-entry efforts, updating charging and sentencing policies, reviewing asset forfeiture guidance, reducing illegal immigration and human trafficking [and] combatting hate crimes.”

The announcement that the panel will look into federal cannabis enforcement polices came on the same day that the Transportation Security Administration appeared to clarify that medical marijuana is allowed on airplanes. However, the agency quickly reversed itself following MassRoots’s report breaking the news about changes to TSA’s website.

In the new memo, the attorney general says that he has directed the task force to hold a National Summit on Crime Reduction and Public Safety within the next four months. And he told personnel that they can send policy suggestions to federal prosecutor Steven H. Cook at Steven.H.Cook@usdoj.gov or Deputy Assistant Attorney General Robyn L. Thiemann at Robyn.Thiemann2@usdoj.gov.

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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