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Jeff Sessions Offers Cannabis Industry No Reassurance

The Attorney General nominee's answers to questions from senators about marijuana enforcement policy were disconcertingly vague.

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The legal marijuana industry continues to wait to see what direction President Donald Trump will take with legal marijuana. His position on the issue, based on his past statements, remains unclear.

Bill Clark | Getty Images

However, his nomination of Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions as attorney general has sent a clear signal to the legalized marijuana community that there could be troubled times ahead. Sessions is a long-time opponent to the legal cannabis movement.

Related: The Many Ways the Cannabis Industry Lacks Traditional Marketing Expertise

This month, during his nomination process with the United States Senate, everyone had their first chance to read Sessions own words on the issue. After his nomination hearing, he wrote responses to specific questions from senators.

Even so, much remains open to interpretation, but Sessions made it clear that he is not ruling out prosecuting people who violate federal law, even if they are in compliance with their state’s laws in regard to medical marijuana.

Medical Marijuana Users

In response to a question asking if he would “consider arresting and prosecuting patients who follow their state medical marijuana laws,” Sessions wrote:

“I will not commit to never enforcing federal law. Whether an arrest and investigation of an individual who may be violating the law is appropriate is a determination made in individual cases based on the sometimes unique circumstances surrounding those cases, as well as the resources available at the time.”

During his confirmation hearing, Sessions did say that taking such action is “absolutely a problem of resources” given limited federal funds. Medical marijuana is now legal in 28 states and the District of Columbia.

Medical Marijuana Businesses

In 2014, Congress approved language in an appropriations bill that prohibits the Drug Enforcement Agency from raiding medical marijuana dispensaries that are compliant with state marijuana laws. In a recent court case, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Department of Justice is prohibited from using federal funds to prosecute businesses who operate within state laws regarding medical marijuana.

Asked if he agreed with this, Sessions said he was not familiar how other courts have interpreted the 9th Circuit’s ruling or the congressional prohibition. He continued,  “As an emerging issue, that is one that will need to be closely evaluated in light of all relevant law and facts. If I am fortunate enough to be confirmed as Attorney General, I will conduct such a review. Of course, medical marijuana use is a small part of the growing commercial marijuana industry.”

Cole Memo

The Cole Memo, written in 2013, outlines the Department of Justice’s approach on marijuana laws. Essentially, the memo makes it clear that while marijuana is illegal at the federal level, the U.S. government will rely on states where cannabis is legal to enact tough laws. As long as states regulate the industry and enforce laws, the department would not challenge the state marijuana laws.

Asked if he agreed with the memo, Sessions wrote:

“While I am generally familiar with the Cole memorandum, I am not privy to any internal Department of Justice data regarding the effectiveness of the policies contained within that memorandum. If I am fortunate enough to be confirmed as Attorney General, I will certainly review and evaluate those policies, including the original justifications for the memorandum, as well as any relevant data and how circumstances may have changed or how they may change in the future.”

"Good people don’t smoke marijuana."

Sessions famously -- or infamously, depending on your point of view -- said that “good people don’t smoke marijuana” during a hearing on the impact of state marijuana legalization laws. Asked about that quote, Sessions wrote:

“My words have been grossly mischaracterized and taken out of context…I was discussing the value of treating people for using dangerous and illegal drugs like marijuana, and the context in which treatment is successful.”

Related: How Cannabis Ecommerce Challenges Are Driving Web Innovation

In the quote provided by Sessions himself, he does not mention treatment, but instead offers the opinion that the drug prevention movement “was really so positive.” In that same testimony, Sessions said the “Just Say No” program started by Nancy Reagan in the 1980s got many kids not to try drugs.

All of Sessions comments during that hearing can be seen on YouTube. Sessions questions and comments begin around the 34:30 mark. Among other comments, Sessions said he believes one of President Barack Obama’s “great failures” was being “lax” on marijuana. 

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