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The Senate Just Confirmed Jeff Sessions as Attorney General

February 8, 2017
Andrew Harnik/AP
After being in continuous session since Monday arguing over President Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees, the US Senate voted Wednesday evening to confirm Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) as the nation’s next attorney general.

As the country’s top law enforcement officer, Sessions will lead the Justice Department and set federal enforcement priorities across the United States. Eventually that may mean confronting the tension between states that have legalized cannabis and federal law that continues to prohibit it.

On a nearly party-line vote, 52–47, the Senate approved the nomination shortly after 7:20 p.m. local time. Not a single Republican voted against the nomination, and only one Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-Va.), voted in favor. One senator—Sessions himself—voted present. The full vote is available online.

Most senators who spoke out against Sessions’ confirmation in the hours leading up to the vote focused on the Alabama Republican’s record on civil rights and equal justice. But several senators also questioned Sessions’ stance on cannabis, which Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) derided as “out of the mainstream.” In April of last year, at a Senate hearing on state cannabis laws, Sessions testified that “good people don’t smoke marijuana,” one of a handful of Sessions’ past statements that has given pause to the cannabis community.

“Tell that to the cancer patients,” Schatz told a mostly empty Senate floor on Tuesday night.

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Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), before she was forced to stop speaking Tuesday night, noted Sessions’ past support for “aggressively prosecuting marijuana offenses.” And Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), hardly an outspoken cannabis proponent despite hailing from Northern California, said she supports enforcing drug laws but believes there are “difficult questions about what actions the Justice Department would take in states that have legalized marijuana.”

Citing input from constituents in his home state, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said he doubted Sessions’ commitment to individual privacy rights. While Tester primarily referenced Sessions’ votes on the Patriot Act, the George W. Bush-era surveillance measure, he said he’s concerned about what those votes indicate about Sessions’ commitment to individual liberties.

“We need an attorney general willing to fights for our rights and freedoms,” Tester said.

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In fairness, Sessions hasn’t yet said how he plans to handle state-legal cannabis as AG. He was noncommittal in response to questions during the confirmation process, saying only that he would “review and evaluate” the current situation.

“While I am generally familiar with the Cole memorandum, I am not privy to any internal Department of Justice data regarding the effectiveness of the policies contained within that memorandum,” he wrote of a crucial Obama-era Department of Justice document that established a policy of not interfering with state cannabis laws.

“Congress made the possession of marijuana in every state, and the distribution of it, an illegal act,” he told senators. “If that’s something that’s not desired any longer, Congress should pass a law to change the rule.”

For their part, Senate Republicans urged that Sessions be confirmed in order to allow President Trump to fill his Cabinet. They downplayed Democrats’ concerns over civil rights as the product of political theater and highlighted his decades in public office. Sen. Mike Enzi said he was “disturbed” by some of the senators’ criticisms during the process, saying he wondered if “even a saint” could be confirmed.

“It's hard to imagine these two won't convince Trump to see things their way.”
Debra Borchardt, Forbes contributor

Across the country, cannabis advocates have been split on what the Trump administration might mean for patients and consumers. Some say fears are overblown, pointing to Trump’s past statements professing support for states’ rights and his tepid approval of medical marijuana. They argue it would be foolish for the Trump administration to crack down on cannabis at a time when public support for legalization is higher than ever. And even if the feds do move against state programs, many doubt the Justice Department has the resources to effectively rein in a multibillion-dollar industry quickly spreading across the country.

But others note that many of the president’s appointees—such as US Rep. Tom Price, Trump’s pick for Health and Human Services Secretary—have taken strong stances against legalization. Price, whom the Senate cleared for a full floor vote shortly after confirming Sessions—will oversee key regulatory agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration, National Institutes of Health, and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services.

“It’s hard to imagine these two won’t convince Trump to see things their way,” Forbes contributor Debra Borchardt wrote Wednesday of Price and Sessions. “The president already believes that all drugs are the reason behind a lot of crime today.”

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Business owners find themselves in a precarious position. “The cannabis industry will be taking some time to adjust to the new administration in general and Sessions’ approach to law enforcement in particular,” said Micah Tapman, managing director at Canopy, a cannabis industry venture fund.

“We expect a bit of a slowdown with investment and new ventures as investors and entrepreneurs consider risks and add mitigating solutions,” he told Leafly via email. “We also expect to see a galvanized lobbying effort by the industry as a whole as companies fight against possible regression.”

Tapman and others called on Congress to expand federal protections for state cannabis laws. “We would like to see an extension and expansion of the Rohrabacher–Farr amendment and Congressional action on banking restrictions,” he said. The Rohrabacher–Farr amendment, a federal spending provision, currently prevents the Department of Justice from targeting state-legal medical marijuana operations. It’s set to expire in April.

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Robert Capecchi, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, said his group was cautiously optimistic that Sessions would “refrain from interfering” in state cannabis laws. “When asked about his plans for marijuana enforcement,” Capecchi said, “Attorney General Sessions said he ‘echo[es]’ the position taken by Loretta Lynch during her confirmation hearings. He repeatedly acknowledged the scarcity of enforcement resources, and he said he would ensure they are used as effectively as possible to stop illicit drugs from being trafficked into the country.”

In Washington state, lawmakers are already working to build a buffer around the state’s cannabis system. A bill currently before the Legislature would prevent local officials from cooperating with the federal government to impede or interfere with the state program. Gov. Jay Insee, a Democrat, said last week he’ll do what he can to convince the White House that the state’s experiment with legalization has been a success. But that hasn’t been enough to ease fears.

“It is extremely difficult for anyone to pretend we can predict what the Trump administration is going to do,” state Sen. Reuven Carlyle (D-Seattle) told the News Tribune.

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Ben Adlin

Ben Adlin is a senior editor at Leafly who specializes in politics and the law. Follow him on Twitter: @badlin

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  • Endrest

    And with this ridiculous ‘choice’ presented by the GOP, the power goes back to the black market. So much for sensible reform.

    As a U.S. Attorney in Alabama in the 1980s, Sessions said he thought the KKK “were OK until I found out they smoked pot.” In April, he said, “Good people don’t smoke marijuana,” and that it was a “very real danger” that is “not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized.” Sessions, who turns 70 on Christmas Eve, has called marijuana reform a “tragic mistake” and criticized FBI Director James Comey and Attorneys General Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch for not vigorously enforcing a the federal prohibition that President Obama has called “untenable over the long term.”

    via Politico – http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/12/jeff-sessions-coming-war-on-legal-marijuana-214501

    • llroot53

      If you’d do a small amount of research, you would find that inflammatory comment was taken so far out of context, it wasn’t even funny – actually, it was a JOKE!

      • Endrest

        Please, do tell… Where did you see that Mr. Sessions’ comments were taken out-of-context?

  • EggDropSoup

    “Good people don’t smoke pot…” heh, what about the pot smoker Carl Sagan? He made more good contributions to humanity than the entire current GOP could ever wish for.

    • Endrest

      Good people don’t endorse the KKK.

      Sagan was a great man… ‘good’ almost seems too small of a word to describe him.

  • MATTHEW S MCQUINN

    Last year I was diagnosed with glaucoma. I own my own business, and work another part time job. I guess I’m not a good person.

  • DV & Child Custody

    Okay, as citizens what are “WE The People” going to do ? We need a plan and we must act quickly!
    We should be ready , We should writing to out elected officials demanding to 1) Impeach this newly elected president 2) Design Non-profit Patient Coop Programs in every state (Patients taking care of Patients no money exchange just seeds and flowers and RSO Oil etc ) 3) seek and request donations from the cannabis breeders and cultivators for donations of seeds, clones, and trimmings etc. 4) start investing in some special storage containers
    https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0049557HI/ref=sr_ph_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1486645438&sr=sr-1&keywords=tightvac+seal+containers

    Emergency Preparedness folks Peace & Love !

  • Rob L Weeks

    We all use illegally, by federal standards, so whys it matter now?

    • Endrest

      All the dispensary owners are freaking out. There haven’t been raids on state-legal dispensaries/grow-ops since Obama told Eric Holder to not prosecute them. As long as these stores/grows were operating legally within their respective state, he said there would be no arrests or seizure of property.

      So, I guess you don’t own a dispensary, but you’d be freaking out a little if you did!

  • Kenneth Miller

    I doubt Sessions will go after marijuana. Trump is not motivated by social issues and could care less about marijuana. Looking at Trump’s positions on many issues, it appears as if he is the first true “dual federalist” we’ve had in over a century; he is going to de-evolve power back to the states on so many issues right in line with Amendment X of the US Constitution. Marijuana, I believe, will be one of those issues. Having said this I do believe that Sessions will not touch the pot issue and leave the states alone. After all, they have bigger fish to fry like child trafficking rings, ISIS abuse of our refugee program, a country without a southern border, and corporate globalist bank/government cabals that are analogous to SPECTRE from the Bond novels.

    I won’t touch on the race stuff since this is a forum on marijuana. For those who are believing the mainstream media narrative that Sessions is some Klansman with views on race I would urge you to do some independent research yourself; you may be surprised by what you find.

    Until Sessions or the administration takes a stance on our girl Mary, I wouldn’t get too bent out of shape.

    • Julia Mueller

      Yes, I second that. Very well said!

    • Mr Green

      I’m not quite sure I agree with you Kenneth and here’s why. Law enforcement specifically the DEA are lazy. They go after the sick, weak and disenfranchised. You see it California all the time busting and harassing medical marijuana patients. You very rarely see them bust a Meth lab or even dealers they like to bust cannabis users who aren’t dangerous or put up a fight. One more thing Kenneth I hope I’m wrong and you’re right.

  • john doe

    WE the voters should have the say on this. And if they try to stop it we should revoke and start a protest all over this country and even a war if need be.IT’S our rights.

  • Erik Estrada

    This whole administration is seriously messed up! Please America…Do not allow this man to continue his administration after his 4 year term!

    • Cyndy Roark

      why would we allow the narcissitic megalomaniacal fascist four years to screw up OUR country. IMPEACH NOW! and get it over with. we all know the mental implosion is eminent.

  • hugh bell

    Although it is difficult to put the toothpaste back in the tube–it is not totally impossible. The government has plenty of your tax dollars to lock you up and they profit by locking you up. Don’t forget, this is the lock up industry country. No other country does what we do in America–“Land of the Free”. 25% of the world’s incarcerated are incarcerated here in America. Under this administration we are walking backwards in all other areas–Why would cannabis be any different?

  • KartofflMuter

    But just in case, I’m putting away an extra ounce or 2 when I can because I’ve had chronic pain since ’86 and can’t walk.