On Tuesday, while his boss was being interrogated by the Senate Intelligence Committee over his ties to Russian officials, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was answering questions in front of another panel of senators.
While Attorney General Jeff Sessions offered his interlocutors very little—he just couldn’t remember much of what the Democrats on the committee wanted to know, you see, but was happy to chat about spy novels with the avuncular Sen. Tom Cotton—Rosenstein, author of the memo that President Donald Trump used as justification to fire FBI chief James Comey, whose agency was investigating those same Russian ties, brought at least something concrete to the table: federal policy on marijuana policy is likely to change.
Probably! But he can’t (or won’t) say when, or to what. But watch this space.
During Barack Obama’s second term in office—which coincided with Colorado and Washington’s first-in-the-nation experiments with marijuana legalization—the federal Justice Department took a hands-off approach to enforcing federal drug laws. In the states where violations of the Controlled Substances Act were daily and flagrant, the feds would only get involved in certain situations outlined in a dossier now known as the Cole Memo.
Up to and including now, Sessions’ Justice Department has stayed the course, despite a clear desire to crack down on legal cannabis. Earlier in the year, Sessions even indicated that the Cole Memo, which is a non-binding document rather than binding statute, was still DOJ policy (although that was before Sessions sent a letter to Congress, unsuccessfully trying to convince them to change a binding budget amendment that prevents the DOJ from prosecuting law-abiding medical marijuana operations).
But as the Washington Times reported, Rosenstein “hinted” that the memo could change.
“Jim Cole tried to deal with it in that memorandum. At the moment that memo is still in effect,” Rosenstein said in response to questions from Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, according to the Times. “Maybe there will be changes to it in the future, but we are still operating under that policy which is an effort to balance the conflicting interests with regard to marijuana.”
“So I can assure you that is going to be a high priority for me as the U.S. attorneys come on board to talk about how to deal with that challenge in the states that have legalized or decriminalized marijuana, whether it be for recreational or medical use…” he continued, as NORML noted in its blog.
But, he added, the DOJ is “responsible for enforcing the law. It’s illegal, and that is the federal policy with regards to marijuana.”
Later, Rosenstein addressed a House panel on the same issue.
“I can tell you, it’s a very complicated issue for us,” he told U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Washington.
“Scientists have found that there’s no accepted medical use for it,” added Rosenstein, directly contradicting the January report from the National Academies of Sciences, which outlined several accepted medical uses for cannabis.
“Cole made an effort to examine the issue and find a way forward for the department where we could continue with our obligation to enforce federal law and minimize the intrusion on states that were attempting to follow a different path,” Rosenstein said. “But I think we’re all going to have to deal with it in the future.”
At first blush, this is nothing truly new.
Hints, suggestions and teases about changes to federal cannabis policy—which has not changed and which very clearly declares that what dozens of states are doing is illegal—have been dropping ever since Sessions took the oath of office.
But it is worth remembering that Sessions is dialing up the pressure.
In his May 1 letter, which Congress ultimately ignored, Sessions tried to tie marijuana legalization to the country’s opiate crisis and to drug cartels.
“I believe it would be unwise for Congress to restrict the discretion of the Department to fund particular prosecutions, particularly in the midst of an historic drug epidemic and potentially long-term uptick in violent crime,” Sessions wrote. “The Department must be in a position to use all laws available to combat the transnational drug organizations and dangerous drug traffickers who threaten American lives.”
Congress ignored him, partly because their constituents don’t want a crackdown, and partly because they can ignore the politically toxic Sessions, who has supposedly already tried to quit his job, without fear of any backlash.
It appears the DOJ is already trying to deal with it, but so far, Congress is doing its job and giving the American people what they want.
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