Who’s Currently in Charge of Federal Cannabis Policy?

Who's Currently in Charge of Federal Cannabis Policy?
Nico Escondido/High Times

As Donald Trump took office in January, cannabis advocates across the country braced for what seemed like a looming and inevitable federal crackdown on marijuana. While the president’s views on cannabis were as erratic as his stance on many other issues, Trump’s cabinet nominees eliminated any doubt about the track the administration would take toward weed. Trump appointed folks with extremely anti-cannabis views to the three positions directly involved with federal marijuana policy. But with the Trump administration bleeding staff like a stuck pig, many are wondering who’s currently in charge of federal cannabis policy?

Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad

As the shape of the Trump administration came into focus back in January of this year, many commentators feared that the federal government was preparing to jump start a new chapter in the failed War on Drugs.

But over the last few weeks, high profile resignations in the Trump administration suggest the federal government couldn’t coordinate a crackdown on cannabis if it wanted to.

That’s because two out of the three most important positions regarding federal weed policy are currently empty. So who’s currently in charge of federal cannabis policy?

Well of course, there’s Trump himself. And despite some rumors that Trump was on the hunt for a new U.S. Attorney General, Jeff Sessions still holds his post.

But aside from Trump and Sessions, two major positions have recently become empty. So who did Trump lose? What agencies did they head? And how will that impact federal pot policy?

No One’s In Charge of HHS

The Secretary of Health and Human Services heads up the nation’s marijuana policy-making branch. Whereas the DEA enforces marijuana laws, HHS makes policy recommendations. It also oversees other agencies which play a role in the prohibition on cannabis, like the FDA.

When the federal government had the chance to reclassify marijuana last year, HHS was a major reason it didn’t happen. Cannabis is still listed as Schedule I on the federal Controlled Substances Act, alongside heroin and ecstasy. That’s because HHS effectively safeguards that classification and directs agencies, like the FDA, to make recommendations against rescheduling weed.

Tom Price, as you might expect, has a miserable record on cannabis. He voted half a dozen times against rules that would stop the Department of Justice (now headed by Sessions) from interfering in states with legal medical and recreational weed. And he voted three times to prevent Veterans Affairs physicians from making medical cannabis recommendations for sick veterans.

But just a few days after Chuck Rosenberg resigned as the acting head of the DEA, Price resigned as head of HHS. Price resigned after news came out that he had spent taxpayer money on expensive chartered flights for personal air travel. The news drew sharp criticism from the media and Trump himself, who promised during his campaign to “drain the swamp.”

And No One Has Been Appointed Permanent Head of the DEA

Currently the DEA is without a permanent leader. That’s because former DEA chief Chuck Rosenberg resigned at the end of September.

Rosenberg gave no official reason for his departure, but according a New York Times report, those close to him suggest he came to feel that Trump “had little respect for the law.” On July 29, Rosenberg publicly criticized the infamous “rough ’em up” speech Trump made to law enforcement officers condoning police misconduct.

Rosenberg was an Obama appointee. He took over the DEA in 2015. He was also a close associate with FBI Director James Comey, whom Trump fired during the ongoing investigation into Trump’s possible collusion with Russia.

But Rosenberg was no friend to cannabis.

When he took over the DEA in 2015, he called medical cannabis “a joke,” and raised other hackles among cannabis advocates, and 160,000 of them called for his ouster in a petition.

The DEA takes its marching orders from the Attorney General. And through its “Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program,” the DEA arrests tons of people for cannabis crimes. As the law enforcement arm of federal cannabis prohibition, the DEA is the agency that takes action.

So Who’s Currently In Charge of Federal Cannabis Policy?

At the moment, it looks like the only person with any real conviction at the helm of federal cannabis policy is Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Plenty of ink has been spilled chronicling Sessions long record of opposing cannabis decriminalization. Sessions, in many ways, can be seen as the arch-nemesis of cannabis reform in the United States.

During Sessions’ confirmation hearing, numerous Democrats, including Elizabeth Warren, denounced Sessions record of racism, bigotry and his appalling record on civil rights. Indeed, Sessions has said that he thought the Ku Klux Klan, a white-supremacist hate group, was “OK until I found out they smoke pot.”

But for now, he’s more or less alone at the wheel.

Earlier this month, Sessions’ Justice Department did appoint an interim chief to the DEA. Robert Patterson, a career investigator, is currently serving as interim DEA chief until Trump finds a permanent replacement for Rosenberg.

So what are Patterson’s views on cannabis?

They’re mostly unclear at the moment. Patterson has been at the DEA since 1988. He began his career investigating RICO cases and has since been a key part of a DEA program fighting the rising opioid crisis in the United States.

So far, however, he hasn’t made any outrageously misinformed claims about cannabis. And that sets him apart, at least in a small way, from his predecessor.

And that’s good news for the millions of people who already have access to legal weed. The likelihood of a serious, coordinated federal crackdown is looking slimmer and slimmer.

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