What the Mass Purge of U.S. Attorneys Means for Weed

Photo by Justin Cannabis

Last week, the Justice Department announced what sounded like a drastic, desperate overhaul of how it does business: 46 local U.S. attorneys appointed by Barack Obama were asked by current Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign.

Some went quietly; others, like Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for Manhattan (who said that Donald Trump had personally asked him to stay on in November), refused and later publicly announced that Trump had him fired.

You can be forgiven for forgetting—so much has happened in the last few weeks—but this is a regular occurrence. United States attorneys, who head up district offices throughout the country and set policy, are political appointees; the prosecutors and investigators who work under them are career officials and stay put. Every president over the past few decades has cleaned house in this way, removing the past president’s political choices in favor of his own.

But since this is Donald Trump, nothing is regular or normal.

As The New York Times noted, the firings came a day after Fox News host Sean Hannity suggested that Obama holdovers were “saboteurs” that needed a “purge”—and that it could be Justice Department officials who are responsible for leaking to the public the latest embarrassing revelations of how bad of a shit show Team Trump is running.

As we know, Trump consumes knee-jerk news like Hannity religiously, and on at least one occasion, conservative news talking points have preceded Trump policy statements (and tweets).

Bharara’s firing also follows news that he may have begun investigating whether Trump’s business ties and worldwide real-estate holdings violate rules prohibiting the president from using the office to make personal profit.

For marijuana, this means a total changing of the guard.

Only two U.S. attorneys survived the purge, according to the Times, and they serve in Virginia and in Maryland. Everywhere commercial sales of adult-use marijuana is legal, everywhere a robust (or even barely effective) medical marijuana distribution system can be found, a new federal prosecutor is coming to town. They will be appointees of Jeff Sessions, and we can be confident they will share his views and be empowered to carry out his policies.

The irony is that past U.S. attorneys under Barack Obama haven’t been necessarily all that friendly. In 2010 and 2011, before marijuana legalization became a mainstream view across the country and a near-certainty almost everywhere the question was considered, Obama appointees did much to muck things up.

In the summertime, California’s four federal prosecutors announced sweeping raids of medical marijuana cultivation sites way up in the foothills and mountains; in fall 2011, they started cracking down on medical marijuana dispensaries in the cities. Hundreds across the state shut down after their landlords received threatening letters from federal prosecutors; not one was ever accused of breaking state or local law.

More recently, a U.S. attorney disrupted the High Times Cannabis Cup in the Nevada desert, informing organizers that no cannabis could be sold; other federal prosecutors have taken cracks at the massive gray-area grows proliferating in Colorado. These were all Obama appointees.

What happens next will hinge heavily on who Sessions installs in each district.

If the past is any indication, the retrograde Sessions will go backwards, just like George W. Bush did. In San Francisco, the rotation went like this: after firing his initial choice for U.S. attorney for rank incompetence, Bush picked to succeed him Joe Russoniello, an old-school hard-liner who did the job under Ronald Reagan.

But here’s where the good news is buried.

U.S. attorneys need nomination and confirmation by the Senate. As drug-policy advocates point out, there is a procedure in Washington, though not often used, that gives U.S. senators the power (at least in theory) to block unwanted attorneys from taking office.

Under Senate tradition, members of the Judiciary Committee ask a nominee’s home-state senators whether they approve or disapprove of the nominee. Senators are asked to mark their preference on a blue-colored piece of paper. Whether the committee cares what the home-state senators think or even bother to read the slips depends on who chairs the committee.

The current chair is Sen. Chuck Grassley—the same Chuck Grassley who thought it a good use of power to violate the Constitution and deny Barack Obama’s nomination for the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland, so much as a confirmation hearing.

So Sessions will likely get his people. They will be Trump people—they will be Steve Bannon people. Who they are and how effective they’ll be remains to be seen, but it’s safe to assume they won’t be marijuana people.

That, at least, will be consistent with Obama.

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