During Tuesday’s marathon confirmation hearings for Attorney General, when marijuana came into the spotlight after six hours, Jeff Sessions failed to give a straight answer on how the Justice Department would respond to states with legalized medical and recreational marijuana.
Although Sessions, the staunchly anti-weed senator from Alabama, appeared to suggest there would not be radical changes in federal policy toward weed, he also left the door open for increased federal interference in states rights.
Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) asked Sessions if he would use federal resources to prosecute sick people using marijuana in accordance with state law, even though it might violate federal law.
Sessions, who told USA Today last April, “Good people don’t smoke marijuana,” acknowledged that the federal government has limited enforcement resources.
“I won’t commit to never enforcing federal law, Senator Leahy, but absolutely it is a problem of resources for the federal government,” said Sessions. “The Department of Justice under Lynch and 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 marijuana, some parts of marijuana.”
“Do you agree with those guidelines?” asked Senator Leahy.
“I think some of them are truly valuable in evaluating cases, but fundamentally the criticism I think that is legitimate is that they may not have been followed,” replied Sessions.
When pressed by Senator Leahy about whether he still believed that someone with a second drug trafficking offense, including marijuana, should face the death penalty, Sessions responded: “Well I’m not sure under what circumstances I said that… It is not my view today.”
Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah asked Sessions how current marijuana policy factors into federalism and if the Obama administration’s approach created issues with separation of powers and states rights.
“One obvious concern is the United States Congress has made the possession in every state and distribution an illegal act. If that’s something that’s not desired any longer Congress should pass a law to change the rule, it is not the Attorney General’s job to decide what laws to enforce,” Sessions responded.
Sessions was referring to the fact that marijuana is legal in some form in 29 states yet remains illegal under federal law—an issue that has caused endless confusion and conflict.
During his election campaign, President-elect Trump indicated he would respect states’ rights on legalization. But then, Trump said a lot of things during his campaign.
Despite Sessions’ lack of clarity, the Marijuana Policy Project seemed encouraged.
“It is notable that Sen. Sessions chose not to commit to vigorously enforcing federal prohibition laws in states that have reformed their marijuana laws,” MPP said in a statement. “He also recognized that enforcing federal marijuana laws would be dependent upon the availability of resources, the scarcity of which poses a problem. He was given the opportunity to take an extreme prohibitionist approach and he passed on it.”
NORML was not as optimistic: “So, 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. 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.”
Today, Sessions’ confirmation hearings will continue. Stay tuned!
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