What Are Merrick Garland's Views on Weed and the War of Drugs?
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If Merrick Garland, President Joe Biden's choice for attorney general, gets through the confirmation process, he apparently will bring a different attitude toward cannabis legalization than his two predecessors.
During his confirmation hearing testimony, Garland made his views on the War on Drugs clear. Given a chance to address the issue, Garland said there have been and continue to be inequities in applying drug laws and that they have had a socioeconomic impact on people of color.
Asked about racial disparities in law enforcement, Garland said, "The marijuana example is a perfect example. Here is a nonviolent crime that does not require us to incarcerate people, and we are incarcerating at significantly different rates (s) in different communities. That is wrong, and it's the kind of problem that will then follow a person for the rest of their lives. It will make it impossible…to get a job and will lead to a downward economic spiral."
Garland's views differ from previous AGs
Garland's views differ from the two previous attorney generals, Jeff Sessions and William Barr. That's good news for the cannabis industry, especially when compared with the opinions of Sessions.
When President Donald Trump appointed Sessions to the office in 2016, the former Alabama senator was already known for his anti-cannabis stance. For example, he once said in a hearing that "good people don't smoke marijuana." During his time in office, he rescinded an Obama Administration era memo that essentially said the federal government would not interfere with states that legalized weed.
When he left office in 2018, no one in the cannabis industry was sad to see him go.
His successor, Barr, returned to a more hands-off approach, although he never clearly said so. Barr only said low-level marijuana crimes would not be a focus of the Justice Department. On the other hand, he did launch investigations into legal cannabis companies on antitrust grounds.
Garland in step with the majority of Americans
While Sessions seemed like a throwback to the War on Drugs era and Barr largely avoided the issue, Garland's views seemed more in step with those held by most Americans. Gallup polls in recent years have shown that most Americans believe weed should be legal. Although Garland did not go that far, he did agree with one of the principal arguments for legalization: drug laws have disproportionately impacted minority communities.
Garland's stance on not using Justice Department resources to get involved with low-level marijuana cases echoed Barr's comments. But what he said about the impact of the War of Drugs on people of color was new. During his testimony, Garland gave some insight into why he feels that way, citing that his family had fled the persecution of Jews in Europe and that the United States took his family in and offered protections. He said he wants to do the same for others as attorney general.
Garland has said little about cannabis in the past. While sitting as a judge, he was on a three-person panel that considered a case brought by cannabis activists to get marijuana taken off the Schedule I list of illegal drugs. Schedule I is the most restrictive category of illegal drugs and includes cocaine and heroin. Garland eventually ruled against the petitioners.
During the case, he asked whether the court should defer to the DEA, which is the entity that classifies marijuana as Schedule I.
However, that was in 2012. In his hearing, Garland struck a position note for marijuana advocates, especially those passionate about legalization's social justice component.