In the Obama era, there were some historic breakthroughs on U.S. drug policy, with voters in several states approving ballot measures to legalize recreational or medicinal marijuana use. As regular readers know, those state-based policies were allowed to proceed because the Obama administration extended its approval.
But it didn’t have to. Under federal law, officials could have ignored voters’ will and blocked those policies from advancing. State experimentation has been allowed to flourish because Barack Obama and his team took a progressive approach to the issue.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has a more regressive policy in mind.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions is giving U.S. attorneys the green light to aggressively enforce federal laws against marijuana – even in states where pot is legal.
In doing so, Sessions is reversing an Obama administration policy that shielded legalized marijuana from federal intervention and enabled the pot industry to flourish, a senior Justice Department official told NBC News on Thursday.
How this will play out in practical terms is still unclear. As NBC News’ report makes clear, the Justice Department established a policy five years ago that directed federal prosecutions to focus on “cases of peddling pot to minors, selling marijuana across state borders or growing pot on federal land, or when it involved gangs or organized crime.” Otherwise, federal law enforcement adopted a largely hands-off posture on the issue.
Jeff Sessions is now scrapping that 2013 policy, opening the door to federal prosecutors possibly pursuing marijuana cases anew.
At a certain level, this isn’t surprising in the least. In fact, last January, I said this would happen. As a Republican senator, Sessions railed against marijuana use and condemned the Obama administration’s lenient approach, which meant, the moment Trump chose him to serve as attorney general, it was a near-certainty that he’d reverse course on years of progress.
Predictable or not, this is poised to become the Trump administration’s latest political headache. Sessions is not only ignoring the president’s stated position on the issue, the attorney general is also ignoring the will of the public.
Complicating matters, Sen. Cory Gardner (R) of Colorado – one of the first states to allow recreational marijuana use by ballot initiative – says he received a commitment from Sessions before his confirmation that he’d leave states’ pot laws alone. The GOP senator this morning accused the attorney general of “directly contradicting” his previous assurances, adding, “I am prepared to take all steps necessary, including holding DOJ nominees, until [Sessions] lives up to the commitment he made to me prior to his confirmation.”
Gardner isn’t on the Judiciary Committee, so presumably he’s referring to potential floor actions – which are made easier in a 51-49 Senate.
Either way, the political fight is likely to get pretty intense.