Obama-era guidance that allows states to legalize marijuana without federal interference remains in effect, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said on Tuesday during a congressional hearing. He also conceded that cannabis is not as dangerous as heroin and that a current budget rider prevents the Department of Justice from prosecuting people who are in compliance with state medical marijuana laws.
“Our policy is the same, really, fundamentally as the Holder-Lynch policy, which is that the federal law remains in effect and a state can legalize marijuana for its law enforcement purposes but it still remains illegal with regard to federal purposes,” Sessions said, referring to his attorney general predecessors during the Obama administration.
Sessions made the comments in response to a question from Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH) during a House Judiciary Committee oversight hearing.
Later, Sessions said, “I think that’s correct,” when Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) argued that cannabis isn’t as dangerous as heroin. Under current federal law, both are classified under Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, a category that’s supposed to be reserved for drugs with a high potential for abuse and no medical value.
As attorney general, Sessions has the power to reschedule cannabis.
Also during Cohen’s line of questioning, the attorney general said, “I believe we are bound by” a federal budget rider that bars the federal government from spending money to interfere with state medical cannabis laws. A federal court ruled last year, over Justice Department objections, that the rider specifically bars prosecution of patients and providers who are acting in accordance with those laws.
Earlier this year, Sessions, sent a letter to congressional leadership asking that they not continue the annual rider into the next fiscal year.
Sessions, a longtime vocal opponent of marijuana legalization, has previously said that the separate Obama policy on state marijuana laws remains in effect while the Department of Justice reviews potential changes, but has not before so clearly tied the Trump administration approach to that of his predecessors.
Under the so-called “Cole Memo,” named after the former Eric Holder deputy who authored it in 2013, the federal government set out certain criteria that, if followed, would allow states to implement their own laws mostly without intervention. Those criteria concern areas like youth use, impaired driving and interstate trafficking.
On the campaign trail, then-candidate Donald Trump repeatedly pledged to respect state marijuana laws.
But in April, Sessions directed a Justice Department task force to review the Obama administration memo and make recommendations for possible changes.
However, that panel did not provide Sessions with any ammunition to support a crackdown on states, according to the Associated Press, which reviewed excerpts of the task force’s report to the attorney general.
Sessions did not refer to any ongoing consideration of enforcement policy changes during the House hearing.
Also at Tuesday’s hearing, Cohen pressed Sessions on his comment last year that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.”
“Is John Kasich a good person?” the congressman asked. “George Pataki, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, George Bush, Arnold Schwarzenegger or Judge Clarence Thomas — which of those are not good people?”
Sessions attributed the remark to “a cultural thing,” noting how he became a federal prosecutor in the 1980s “and the drugs were being used widely, over a period years it became unfashionable, unpopular, and it was seen as such that good people didn’t use marijuana. That was the context of that statement.”
During a Senate hearing last month, the attorney general said that allowing more researchers to legally grow more marijuana for scientific studies would be “healthy.”
He has yet to respond to pending written questions stemming from that hearing about a federal budget rider that prevents the Justice Department from interfering with state medical cannabis laws.
Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore.
Rand Paul Pushes Marijuana Amendments On Funding Bill
As Congress works to end a federal government shutdown that began at midnight on Friday, a Republican senator is trying to insert marijuana into the process.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky has filed two far-reaching cannabis amendments that he wants to be part of a deal to reopen the government.
One measure would prevent the Justice Department from interfering with state recreational legalization and medical cannabis laws, a big concern in the wake of U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s recent rescission of Obama-era guidance that has generally allowed local marijuana policies to be implemented without federal harassment:
______ SA 1910. Mr. PAUL submitted an amendment intended to be proposed by him to the bill H.R. 195, to amend title 44, United States Code, to restrict the distribution of free printed copies of the Federal Register to Members of Congress and other officers and employees of the United States, and for other purposes; which was ordered to lie on the table; as follows: At the appropriate place, insert the following: Sec. __. None of the funds made available by this Act to the Department of Justice may be used, with respect to any of the States of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming, to prevent the State from implementing State laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of marijuana on non-Federal lands within the respective jurisdiction of the State. ______
Paul’s other amendment concerns the ability of banks to open accounts for marijuana businesses without running afoul of federal regulators:
______ SA 1909. Mr. PAUL submitted an amendment intended to be proposed by him to the bill H.R. 195, to amend title 44, United States Code, to restrict the distribution of free printed copies of the Federal Register to Members of Congress and other officers and employees of the United States, and for other purposes; which was ordered to lie on the table; as follows: At the appropriate place, insert the following: Sec. __. None of the funds made available by this Act may be used by the Department of Justice for activities that are not in compliance with the February 14, 2014, Department of Justice memorandum from James M. Cole, Deputy Attorney General, entitled ''Guidance Regarding Marijuana Financial Crimes'', and the memoranda incorporated therein. ______
A top Treasury Department official testified before senators this week that the Trump administration is currently weighing whether to tear up an Obama-era memo on cannabis banking in line with Sessions’s move to rescind the broader Justice Department guidance on state marijuana laws.
It is unclear if either of Paul’s amendments will actually be considered and voted on as part of a deal to re-open the federal government following the Friday shutdown.
The lapse in spending legislation has put medical cannabis patients and providers at greater risk because an existing protection preventing the Justice Department from undermining medical marijuana laws has now expired, but drug enforcement has not. Under a federal contingency plan, anti-drug agents and prosecutors are exempt from furlough.
If Congress passes another bill to fund the government, the medical cannabis protections will go back into effect through whatever date to which the legislation continues spending levels. People complying with broader full-scale marijuana legalization laws will remain at risk of federal enforcement actions, however, unless Paul’s relevant amendment is adopted.
Earlier this week, House leaders effectively blocked an amendment to protect state marijuana laws from federal interference from being considered on the floor.
Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore.
Marijuana Is Safer Than Alcohol, Tobacco Or Sugar, Americans Say In New Poll
Americans think marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol, tobacco or sugar. That’s according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Friday.
When asked in a survey which substance is most harmful to health, 41 percent chose tobacco, 24 percent said alcohol and 21 percent flagged sugar.
Just nine percent believe cannabis is the most dangerous of the four options.
The poll also asked about American’s views on legalizing marijuana in their state, with 60 percent saying they would favor the policy.
When the news organizations polled the same question in 2014, 55 percent were on board.
The new numbers are in line with other recent polls showing growing support for ending cannabis prohibition.
In October, a Gallup poll found that 64 percent of Americans back legalizing marijuana.
Earlier this month, in the wake of the Trump administration’s decision to rescind Obama-era guidance that has generally allowed states to implement their own marijuana laws, three separate national polls found broad opposition to federal interference in local cannabis policies.
See the full NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll below:
Government Shutdown Would Let Sessions Attack Medical Marijuana
The federal government will shut down at midnight on Friday, barring an unexpected, last-minute bipartisan deal. That puts medical marijuana patients and providers at risk of being arrested, prosecuted and sent to prison by Jeff Sessions’s Justice Department.
Under a shutdown scenario, an existing budget provision that prevents the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and other agencies from spending money to interfere with state medical cannabis laws would expire. But federal drug enforcement and prosecution actions, which are exempted from furloughs, would continue.
Why Might The Government Shut Down?
A bill to extend federal funding levels and policy riders like the marijuana one through February 16 was approved by the House on Thursday. But a heated dispute over immigration issues has jeopardized its passage in the Senate, where a significant number of Democrats are refusing to support any bill that does not provide protections to people who were brought to the U.S. as children.
Earlier this month, Attorney General Sessions rescinded Obama-era guidance that has generally allowed states to implement their own cannabis laws without federal intervention. That has left recreational marijuana businesses and consumers without a key protection they’ve relied on since 2013, but the ongoing existence of the medical cannabis spending rider has continued to keep patients and providers safeguarded from federal attacks.
An unintended consequence of Senate Democrats’ move to block the funding extension bill and shut down the government over immigration issues is that medical marijuana patients and industry operators would be at much greater risk, as soon as this weekend.
Why Would Drug Enforcement Continue Under A Shutdown?
“All agents in DEA field organizations are excepted from furlough because they support active counternarcotics investigations. This encompasses 21 domestic divisions, 7 regional foreign divisions, critical tactical support groups including the El Paso Intelligence Center and the Special Operations Division, forensic sciences, and technical surveillance support,” a Justice Department shutdown contingency plan says. “DEA investigations need to continue uninterrupted so that cases are not compromised and the health and safety of the American public is not placed at risk.”
The same goes for federal prosecutors.
“As Presidential Appointees, U.S. Attorneys are not subject to furlough,” the shutdown document reads. “Excepted employees are needed to address ongoing criminal matters and civil matters of urgency throughout the Nation. Criminal litigation will continue without interruption as an excepted activity to maintain the safety of human life and the protection of property.”
Politics Of Marijuana And Immigration Collide
Democrats, especially those considering 2020 presidential bids, are facing enormous pressure from their progressive base not to go along with yet another bill in a series of short-term funding extensions that do not include protections for young immigrants known as “DREAMers.” Because Republicans hold only 51 seats in the chamber, and a handful of GOP members are also opposing the spending resolution, leaders need support from Democrats to reach the critical 60-vote threshold to advance legislation.
The medical cannabis budget rider was first enacted into law in late 2014, and has since been extended for each subsequent fiscal year. Last May, Sessions sent a letter to congressional leaders asking them not to continue the medical marijuana rider into Fiscal Year 2018.
“I believe it would be unwise for Congress to restrict the discretion of the Department to fund particular prosecutions, particularly in the midst of an historic drug epidemic and potentially long-term uptick in violent crime,” he wrote. “The Department must be in a position to use all laws available to combat the transnational drug organizations and dangerous drug traffickers who threaten American lives.”
Setting aside the important question of whether the medical cannabis rider will be included in full Fiscal Year 2018 spending legislation that congressional leaders continue to negotiate — and it is a big question, since House leaders blocked lawmakers from even voting on whether to include the policy in that chamber’s version of Justice Department spending legislation — the current budget brinksmanship on Capitol Hill means the medical marijuana protections could disappear as soon as Saturday morning.
A Shutdown Allows Old Federal Marijuana Prosecutions To Resume
If the provision lapses, it wouldn’t just allow new actions against people violating federal marijuana laws. It would also allow earlier medical cannabis prosecutions that were suspended under to the rider to resume.
A federal judge in a California case last August, for example, wrote that the prosecution of two marijuana growers would be “stayed until and unless a future appropriations bill permits the government to proceed. If such a bill is enacted, the government may notify the Court and move for the stay to be lifted.”
The failure to enact a new bill continuing the protections would have the same effect under a shutdown scenario, given that enforcement of federal drug laws would still continue.
Long-Term Status Of Marijuana Protections Unclear
The Senate Appropriations Committee voted in July to include the medical cannabis rider in its version of the 2018 Justice Department funding bill. But without the provision being approved on the House side, its long-term continuance will be determined behind closed doors by a bicameral conference committee that merges the two chambers’ proposal into a single bill to be sent to President Trump.
Advocates have also pushed to expand the protection to encompass all state marijuana laws, not just those focused on medical access. A measure to do that came just nine flipped votes of passage on the House floor in 2015, and the number of states with legalization has doubled since then. However, Republican congressional leaders have blocked subsequent cannabis measures from advancing to floor consideration, including as recently as this week.
In the meantime, medical cannabis patients and providers will wait to see if Jeff Sessions and his DEA agents will regain the ability to come after them for the first time since 2014 this weekend.
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