Just how Sen. Jeff Sessions would enforce federal laws against marijuana possession and distribution as the nation’s attorney’s general was not immediately clear Tuesday when the topic was broached in his confirmation hearing, though his responses were not reassuring to most cannabis industry leaders and activists.
“I won’t commit to never enforcing federal law,” Sessions said in response to Sen. Patrick Leahy’s question about conflicting federal and state marijuana laws, adding: “But absolutely, it’s a problem of resources for the federal government.
“The Department of Justice under (AG Loretta) Lynch and (Eric) Holder set forth some policies that they thought were appropriate to define what cases should be prosecuted in states that have legalized at least in some fashion some parts of marijuana.”
Sessions, a Republican senator from Alabama elected to his fourth term in 2014, has taken public stances opposing marijuana legalization and has criticized the Obama administration for its laissez-faire approach to cannabis laws in states such as Colorado.
When asked if he agreed with the guidelines put in place under the Obama administration, Sessions responded:
“I think some of them are truly valuable in evaluating cases, but fundamentally the criticism I think that was legitimate is that they may not have been followed. Using good judgment about how to handle these cases will be a responsibility of mine. I know it won’t be an easy decision, but I will try to do my duty in a fair and just way.”
During a full day of testimony, Sessions fielded senators’ wide-ranging questions on topics such as civil rights; law enforcement; crime; the rights of women and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community; voting rights; immigration; terrorism; Russia and military detention.
Six hours into the hearing, marijuana legalization came into the spotlight in a question by Leahy, D-Vermont, with Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, posing a follow-up on federalist approaches to law enforcement.
“I think one obvious concern is that the United States Congress has made the possession of marijuana in every state and distribution of it an illegal act,” Sessions said in response to Lee. “If that something is not desired any longer, Congress should pass the law to change the rule.
“It’s not so much the attorney general’s job to decide what laws to enforce. We should do our job and enforce laws effectively as we’re able.”
While the remarks were pretty much in line with what was expected, cannabis industry officials were quick to express concern.
“After finally being put on the spot and questioned on the issue, we are no closer to clarity in regards to Sessions’ plans for how to treat state marijuana laws than we were yesterday,” stated NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri. “If anything, his comments are a cause for concern and can be interpreted as leaving the door open for enforcing federal law in legalized states.”
If that happens, Isaac Dietrich, CEO of MassRoots, said it could be devastating to the cannabis industry.
“If Senator Sessions goes after the regulated cannabis industry, he will destroy tens of thousands of jobs, shut down hundreds of small businesses and take away millions of dollars from our schools,” Dietrich said. “Hopefully the Trump Administration supports states’ rights on cannabis legalization, despite Senator Sessions’ personal views.”
Given both Sessions’ and Trump’s past statements about supporting states’ rights, some industry leaders remained optimistic about how the new administration will handle the conflict between state and federal law going forward.
“Senator Sessions has always been a supporter of states’ rights,” said Derek Peterson, CEO of Terra Tech. “Trump has made being pro-industry and states’ rights a cornerstone of his Administration, and we are expecting these principles to be consistent among how all members of the Trump Administration prioritize their resources.”
Frank Lane, Vice President of CannabisFN, said that, under Sessions, he anticipates a “slightly more restrictive” version of the so-called Cole Memo that’s allowed states to carry out their marijuana schemes so long as they take certain steps to guard against things like money laundering and selling to minors. But Lanes doesn’t expect Sessions will completely disrupt the industry.
“If Sessions wants to be an Attorney General for all Americans,” Altieri said, “he must bring his views in line with the majority of the population and support allowing states to set their own marijuana policies without fear of federal intervention.”
Portions of this story first appeared on TheCannabist.co.