Attorney General Merrick Garland on Tuesday reaffirmed that he does not feel the Department of Justice should be using its limited resources to go after people using marijuana in compliance with state law.
During a House Appropriations subcommittee meeting, Rep. Mike Garcia (R-CA) asked the official about what steps his agency could take to stop transnational organizations from illicitly cultivating cannabis and stealing natural resources for their grow operations.
Garland said that he’s “not precisely familiar with the specifics” of that issue, but it is “certainly within our jurisdiction and within our scope of concern” to go after marijuana growing operations that violate state law. But while curtailing large-scale illicit traffickers is something the department will pursue, the attorney general said people using cannabis in legal states is not a worthwhile endeavor.
“The department’s view on marijuana use is that enforcement against use is not a good use of our resources,” Garland said. “And I understand that’s not what you’re talking about. You’re talking about growing and manufacturing at a large scale.”
“It’s probably not a good use of our resources where it is regulated by the state—and again, I take it that that’s not what you’re asking about, so to the extent you’re asking for examples about transnational operations of large amounts coming from Mexico or transnational operators who are coming into the United States to do the growing, these are certainly within our jurisdiction and within our scope of concern.”
Later in the hearing, Garcia returned to the subject of large-scale illicit marijuana cultivation and asked for the attorney general’s commitment to send a delegation of federal officials to California to see the problem firsthand. The congressman noted that the illegal growers and crime associated with those enterprises are “also bad for the legal cannabis industry as well.”
Tuesday’s meeting of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies wasn’t focused on marijuana; rather, it generally concerned the annual budget request for the Justice Department. Drug enforcement did come up on several occasions.
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has been targeting illicit growers, including in states that have legalized cannabis, through a marijuana eradication program. A recently released report shows that the agency seized more illegal plants (mostly in California) in 2020 than the prior year, but the seizures are significantly lower than they were a decade ago.
In any case, the attorney general’s broader remarks on Justice Department cannabis priorities is consistent with what he said throughout his confirmation process earlier this year.
“I do not think it the best use of the Department’s limited resources to pursue prosecutions of those who are complying with the laws in states that have legalized and are effectively regulating marijuana,” he previously said. “I do think we need to be sure, for example, that there are no end runs around the state laws by criminal enterprises, and that access is prohibited to minors.”
That view aligns with policies put into place under President Barack Obama’s administration—known as the Cole memorandum—and then rescinded by President Donald Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions.
“Criminalizing the use of marijuana has contributed to mass incarceration and racial disparities in our criminal justice system,” Garland said in written testimony, “and has made it difficult for millions of Americans to find employment due to criminal records for nonviolent offenses.”
It’s not clear if the Department of Justice will issue a new cannabis prosecution guidance memo under Garland—an issue he was not pressed on at Tuesday’s hearing.
Trump’s second attorney general, William Barr, maintained that Congress should take steps to resolve the state-federal marijuana policy conflict. But he did not make any definitive statements about the need to shift gears administratively, nor did he dedicate time while in office to recognize the racial disparities of cannabis enforcement.
Barr did allegedly direct the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division to carry out investigations into 10 marijuana mergers out of personal animus for the industry. A whistleblower who testified before a key House committee claimed the investigations were unnecessary and wasted departmental resources. But the assistant attorney general for the Antitrust Division later argued that the investigations were actually “consistent with protecting consumers’ access to cannabis products, not with animosity toward the industry.”