Pubdate: Tue, 10 Jan 2017
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2017 The Washington Post Company
Author: Christopher Ingraham


In his Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday, Sen. Jeff Sessions,
President-elect Trump's nominee for attorney general, declined to say
whether he'd adhere to the more lenient marijuana enforcement
guidelines adopted by the Obama administration's Justice Department in
states that have legalized medicinal or recreational marijuana use.

"Would you use our federal resources to investigate and prosecute sick
people who are using marijuana in accordance with their state laws,
even though it might violate federal laws?" Senator Patrick Leahy
(D.-Vermont) asked.

"I won't commit to never enforcing federal law, Senator Leahy,"
Sessions replied. "I think some of [the Obama-era guidelines] are
truly valuable in evaluating cases," he added. "Using good judgment
about how to handle these cases will be a responsibility of mine. I
know it won't be an easy decision, but I will try to do my duty in a
fair and just way."

Under Obama, the Department of Justice largely adopted a hands-off
approach to marijuana enforcement in states that legalized the drug
for medical or recreational use, provided that certain criteria --
like keeping the drug out of the hands of children -- were met under
state laws. That policy was outlined in a Justice Department document
that came to be known as the Cole Memo, for former U.S. Deputy
Attorney General James Cole, who drafted the memo.

Drug policy experts have said that this tacit green light from the
Obama administration was instrumental in Colorado and Washington's
decisions to fully follow through on recreational marijuana laws
passed by voters in 2012. In November 2016, four more states including
California voted to make the recreational use of marijuana legal,
bringing the total to eight states plus the District. Medicinal
marijuana has been legalized in 28 states.

In prior public statements, Sessions was harshly critical of the
Justice Department 's approach on the issue. In an April 2016 Senate
drug hearing, Sessions said, "I think one of [Obama's] great failures,
it's obvious to me, is his lax treatment in comments on marijuana. It
reverses 20 years almost of hostility to drugs that began really when
Nancy Reagan started 'Just Say No.'"

Sessions also said at the time that "the Department of Justice needs
to be clearer" on marijuana legalization and enforcement.

Sessions didn't appear to commit to providing such clarity today. He
neither voiced support for the Obama-era rules, nor signaled that he
was eager to throw them away altogether. Marijuana legalization
advocate Tom Angell called it a "good sign that Sen. Sessions seemed
open to keeping the Obama guidelines, if maybe with a little stricter
enforcement of their restrictions."

"It is notable that Sen. Sessions chose not to commit to vigorously
enforcing federal prohibition laws in states that have reformed their
marijuana laws," said Robert Capecchi of the Marijuana Policy Project
in a statement. "He was given the opportunity to take an extreme
prohibitionist approach and he passed on it."

[Trump's pick for attorney general: 'Good people don't smoke

Marijuana industry leaders voiced similar notes of cautious optimism.
"Though it is possible that a slightly more restrictive 'Sessions
Memo' will replace the existing Cole Memo," said Frank Lane, Vice
President of financial services company CannabisFN, "we do not believe
an AG Sessions will disrupt the long-term growth prospects of the U.S.
cannabis industry."

Later in the hearing, Sessions noted that "the U.S. Congress has made
the possession of marijuana in every state, and distribution of it, an
illegal act. So if that's not desired any longer, Congress should pass
a law to change the rule."

Those words echo remarks by President Obama, who has repeatedly
rebuffed calls to reschedule marijuana by saying that it is properly
Congress' job to change the nation's drug laws.

President-elect Trump has himself given mixed signals on marijuana
laws. He has spoken out about the negative effects of making marijuana
recreationally available, but has said that changes to marijuana law
should be handled on a state-by-state basis.

In a reminder of the low salience of marijuana reform for many
lawmakers and voters, the questions to Sessions on marijuana law came
roughly six hours into his first day of hearings. By that time, many
of the Senators had already left the room.
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MAP posted-by: Matt