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Sessions Hearings Fail to Answer Questions on Cannabis

January 12, 2017
(Alex Brandon/AP)
This week’s confirmation hearings for Sen. Jeff Sessions, President-elect Trump’s pick for attorney general, did little to ease cannabis advocates’ fears that the incoming administration could put state-legal cannabis programs at risk.

Asked by one senator about state cannabis laws, Sessions “gave a wishy-washy non-answer that provides little comfort to medical marijuana patients, state officials, and others,” Bill Piper, senior director of the Drug Policy Alliance’s office of national affairs, said Thursday in a conference call with reporters.

“He was clear that federal law makes possession and distribution a crime and that he would enforce federal law,” added Alison Parker, the US director of Human Rights Watch.

Since the election, the cannabis community has been forced to read tea leaves in an effort to predict how the Trump administration might approach state-legal cannabis. While Trump in the past has professed support for states’ rights and medical marijuana, his nomination of Sessions, a staunch drug war proponent, left many scratching their heads.


We’re Watching the Jeff Sessions Confirmation Hearings So You Don’t Have To

Quizzed this week on the relationships between state cannabis programs and federal law, Sessions played his cards close to his chest.

“One obvious concern is that the United States Congress made the possession of marijuana in every state, and the distribution of it, an illegal act,” he said in response to a question from Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah). “If that’s something that’s not desired any longer, Congress should pass a law to change the rule.”

As Reason’s Eric Boehm wrote, that answer is technically correct—but it still doesn’t tell us much.

As a matter of basic civics, yes, Sessions is right about all that. Congress should be the ones to decide when marijuana is legal or illegal at the federal level and the Justice Department is supposed to enforce the laws, not make them. That’s hardly a controversial or revealing statement.

Practically, though, Sessions would have tremendous power as attorney general to decide exactly what “enforce laws effectively as we are able” means. Without needing approval from Congress, Sessions could send federal agents to arrest growers, shut down dispensaries, and freeze the bank accounts of marijuana businesses.

For now, a Congressional provision known as the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment prevents federal prosecutors from going after state-legal medical cannabis operations. But that measure is set to expire in April of this year, and its protections currently don’t extend to adult-use programs.

If confirmed, Sessions would oversee the US Department of Justice, setting policies and enforcement priorities for federal prosecutors across the country. The Justice Department also is the parent agency of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Even if Sessions were to decline to target cannabis nationally, he could sign off on initiatives by federal prosecutors at the state level, such as when former US Attorney General Eric Holder approved a 2011 crackdown on California cannabis businesses.

Such arbitrary enforcement of federal law is “not good for the marijuana industry or patients that benefit from these programs,” said Jonathan Banks, a criminal justice research associate at the Cato Institute.

“More than half the states have legalized some sort of marijuana use,” Banks said, “and there was nothing in that hearing that led us to believe that [Sessions is] going to be any better than he has been in the past.”

The Alabama senator’s past statements condemning cannabis have been widely reported at this point. “Good people don’t smoke marijuana,” he once said. He’s also joked that he thought members of the Ku Klux Klan “were OK until I found out they smoked pot.”


Federal Court Bars Justice Department From Prosecuting Medical Cannabis

Not everyone felt threatened by the responses from Sessions, however.  Troy Dayton, co-founder of the Oakland, Calif.-based Arcview Group, said the AG nominee “left the door open [to enforcement of federal law] but indicated it would be a low priority. That’s a huge victory considering [Sessions’] previous inflammatory statements about this topic,” Bloomberg reported.

“He also recognized that enforcing federal marijuana laws would be dependent upon the availability of resources, the scarcity of which poses a problem,” Robert Capecchi, the Marijuana Policy Project’s director of federal policies, said in a statement. “He was given the opportunity to take an extreme prohibitionist approach, and he passed on it.”


DC Advocates Take Their Case to Jeff Sessions—and He Listens. Sort of.

Tom Angell, chair of legalization advocacy group Marijuana Majority, said in a statement he’s “hopeful the new administration will realize that any crackdown against broadly popular laws in a growing number of states would create huge political problems they don’t need and will use lots of political capital they’d be better off spending on issues the new president cares a lot more about.”

Many were disappointed that senators didn’t push harder for a clear response from Sessions to questions about state-legal cannabis. Most Washington, DC, pundits expect to see Sessions easily confirmed by the full Senate, meaning the future for cannabis in the United States remains a mystery.

Ben Adlin's Bio Image

Ben Adlin

Ben Adlin is a Seattle-based writer and editor who specializes in cannabis politics and law. He was a news editor for Leafly from 2015-2019. Follow him on Twitter: @badlin

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  • HM420

    If he will force the Industry, it´s really sad to see that after going a big step forward it will goes now 2 steps back !
    And what will happen than in states that already legalized ? When Millions of people have to face that they will again be seen as “criminals” ?
    I ´won´t believe that this will bring the people of the USA together and be helpful to unite a broken country, as more likely be a help to divide people and to start a new age of “war on drugs” ! And i don´t think that the US citizens wanna go back to this kind of War again, or… ?!..
    And what about the families that won´t be allowed to medicate their sick childrens anymore ? What should they tell their Kids when they have to suffer again because other medicines won´t work ?…

    Well, Time will tell & hope dies at last….


  • Hseus

    If Sessions decides to reignite the “war” on drugs, it will be high time to actually foot an army. The government is on the wrong side of this issue, it is getting to the point where violent resistance is becoming necessary.

    • Cameron Robison

      Maybe the US should take some pointers from Canada.

  • Cameron Robison

    This guy is a tool. If he is named AG this country will be worse off then it is now! I wish Bernie Sanders would have become president when he ran, all us cannabis users would not be having this discussion.

  • Cameron Robison

    I will lose alot of respect for trump if this guy becomes AG!

  • originalone

    Wait and see, that’s all we can do. Considering the A.G. position, up holding the law, he has to think of all the loot the various police departments take in during arrests and convictions- as in forfeitures – which must be a ginormous sum of $$$$. Some departments probably would go looking for other work if they lost that revenue source.

  • Robert McKeown

    This man shines of Phara drugs

  • Raymond Perry Edge

    The Justice Dept is the parent agency for the DEA? Can you say “Conflict of Interest?”