At his confirmation hearing on Tuesday, attorney general nominee William Barr said he would not go after marijuana companies that have operated in compliance with earlier Justice Department guidance that was rescinded last year by his predecessor, Jeff Sessions.
He also encouraged Congress to address the conflict between federal and state cannabis policies.
“My approach to this would be not to upset settled expectations and the reliant interests that have arisen as a result of the Cole memorandum,” Barr said, referring to a memo on federal marijuana enforcement priorities that Sessions revoked in early 2018. “However, I think the current situation is untenable and really has to be addressed. It’s almost like a backdoor nullification of federal law.”
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) asked Barr what he would do to address the issue and whether he felt it was “appropriate to use federal resources to target marijuana businesses that are in compliance with state law.”
“I’m not going to go after companies that have relied on Cole memorandum,” Barr replied. “However, we either should have a federal law that prohibits marijuana everywhere, which I would support myself because I think it’s a mistake to back off marijuana. However, if we want a federal approach—if we want states to have their own laws—then let’s get there and get there in the right way.
William Barr to @CoryBooker: We either should have a federal law that prohibits marijuana everywhere, which I would support myself, 'cause I think it's a mistake to back off on marijuana. However, if we want a federal approach, if we want states to have their own laws…" (cont.) pic.twitter.com/EgogMltZsu
— CSPAN (@cspan) January 15, 2019
Booker, who has sponsored a bill to remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and penalize states where marijuana enforcement is disproportionate, said he was glad to hear Barr’s comment on not taking action against state-legal marijuana businesses.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) also pressed Barr about his stance on federal marijuana enforcement. She asked whether the nominee intended to use the limited federal funds at his disposal to go after cannabis businesses in compliance with state law.
HARRIS: You do not intend to use fed resources to enforce fed marijuana law in states that have legalized?
BARR: “That’s right. But I think i’s incumbent on the Congress to make a decision as to whether we are going to have a federal system.” pic.twitter.com/owWekY9PqP
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) January 15, 2019
“No, I thought I answered that by saying that to the extent that people are complying with the state laws—distribution and production and so forth—we’re not going to go after that,” Barr said. That said, “I think it’s incumbent on the Congress to make a decision as to whether we’re going to have a federal system or whether it’s going to be essential federal law. This is breeding disrespect for the federal law.”
Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), who has sponsored broad marijuana reform legislation that last year earned an endorsement from President Trump, said he is “encouraged” by Barr’s statements.
I plan on speaking with him about taking a states' rights approach to regulating the legal marijuana industry in further detail in our meeting prior to his confirmation vote. 2/3
— Cory Gardner (@SenCoryGardner) January 15, 2019
When it comes to Colorado’s legal marijuana industry, states’ rights must be protected. My bipartisan STATES Act respects the will of the people in each state and I will continue to fight to pass this landmark legislation. 3/3
— Cory Gardner (@SenCoryGardner) January 15, 2019
Michael Collins, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment that “Barr’s comments on not going after state-legal marijuana are a welcome development, and a break with his predecessor.”
“He should now commit his department to working with Congress on a solution to the state vs. federal conflict, so that we can reform our outdated marijuana laws in a way that is consistent with racial justice values,” Collins said.
Other advocates saw the comments as positive, though one noted that Barr seems to personally opposed marijuana law reform even while he indicated he wouldn’t interfere with the implementation of state laws.
“While it is encouraging that William Barr committed to not enforce federal prohibition, his insistence that he believes in the policy of prohibition is a clear signal that the Department of Justice will continue to be led by an individual who refuses to acknowledge the successful implementation of reforms in states throughout the nation,” Justin Strekal, political director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment.
Strekal said Barr’s pledge not to interfere in state-legal marijuana activities gives Congress “a clear mandate to take action and end the underlying policy of federal criminalization.”
Don Murphy, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment that Barr’s newly stated stance effectively “green lights the marijuana industry” in spite of concerns reform advocates expressed about the Trump administration after the 2016 presidential election. He said the exchange represented a “big win for marijuana policy reformers.”
“Senator Booker delivered for advocates and AG nominee Barr delivered for the industry.”
Also at the hearing, Booker questioned the nominee’s broader views on mass incarceration and racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Barr defended his earlier call for increased incarceration in the 1990s, saying it was made in the context of historically high crime rates and was directed at chronic, violent offenders.
But he also agreed to commission a Justice Department study about racial disparities in the criminal justice system and recognized that harsh penalties for non-violent drug crimes have specifically “harmed the black community—the incarceration rate on the black community.”
Harris also challenged Barr to “take a look at the more recent perspective on the drug crisis that is afflicting our country.”
.@KamalaHarris: There's understanding that the war on drugs was an abject failure. America has an addiction crisis & putting the limited resources of our fed. govt. into locking up people who suffer from a public health crisis is probably not the smartest use of taxpayer dollars. pic.twitter.com/lxC9sNTIsk
— Legal Defense Fund (@NAACP_LDF) January 15, 2019
She said there’s “now an understanding that the war on drugs was an abject failure, that America frankly has a crisis of addiction and that putting the limited resources of our federal government into up locking people who suffer from a public health crisis is probably not the smartest use of taxpayer dollars.”
A few moments ago I reminded Attorney General nominee William Barr that the War on Drugs has been an abject failure.
America has an addiction crisis and we should be putting our resources toward combatting drug addiction, not locking people up.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) January 15, 2019
One of the last senators to question Barr during the first round, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC), also brought up cannabis. He asked whether it was fair to characterize the nominee’s statements as essentially imploring Congress to settle the issue, regardless of where he personally stands on marijuana policy.
“That’s generally fair, yes,” Barr said.
This story has been updated to include additional comments from Barr, Booker, Gardner, Harris and Tillis, as well as marijuana policy reform advocates.
Photo courtesy of The Washington Post/YouTube.
Where Presidential Candidate Joe Sestak Stands On Marijuana
Joe Sestak, a former congressman from Pennsylvania and three-star vice admiral in the Navy, announced on Sunday that he is launching a relatively late run for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
Though his record in Congress doesn’t offer many insights into where Sestak stands on marijuana policy, he took one vote in support of shielding state medical cannabis laws from federal interference, and his current campaign site proposes reforming federal laws to facilitate research into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics.
Legislation And Policy Actions
Sestak served in Congress from 2007 to 2011. In that time, he did not proactively sponsor or cosponsor any cannabis-related legislation.
The congressman was present for a vote on just one marijuana amendment attached to a spending bill—one to protect states that have legalized medical cannabis from Justice Department intervention—and he voted in favor of the proposal, even though his state had not yet enacted its own medical marijuana law.
Quotes And Social Media Posts
It’s difficult to assess exactly where the candidate stands on marijuana in part because a scan for relevant terms on his social media posts turns up nil.
Adding to the confusion is the apparent lack of public comments about cannabis policy from Sestak—at least any comments that have been reported by media.
The Philadelphia Inquirer did publish an article in 2016 that described Sestak, a former U.S. Navy admiral, as a “longtime supporter of medical access [to marijuana]—especially for vets” but it did not quote the congressman directly. That piece also noted that his position on cannabis decriminalization is unclear.
Statements on his campaign site do provide a small window into his views on the drug war more broadly.
Sestak argued that President Donald Trump’s proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border would be ineffective because “most illicit trafficking of drugs, humans, and weapons, actually happens right under the noses of our border security agents” at legal ports of entry.
He also partially blamed “misguided US policies and the high demand for illegal drugs in the United States” for creating crises that leave many to flee their home countries to seek asylum in the U.S.
“Our country, which sends hundreds of millions in foreign aid to these countries, must do a better job of holding Central American officials accountable for seeing that our funds are spent effectively—and that they do not become fuel for the fires of corruption and instability,” he said.
One of the most revealing positions on drug policy that Sestak has offered also comes from his campaign site: he said that he supports efforts to combat mental health conditions and addiction, and one part of that plan involves changing “federal law to allow doctors and scientists to expand research into the potential of certain psychedelic drugs to complement traditional substance abuse and other mental health treatment.”
“Anti-drug laws should never be an impediment to sound scientific research, but especially not during a public health crisis such as this one,” he said.
Discussing veterans issues, Sestak said that the country “must learn from innovative approaches taken to reduce chronic veteran homelessness like Phoenix’s ‘housing first’ strategy in which homeless veterans are given housing before being required to prove sobriety or pass a drug test,” which also seems to indicate an openness to alternative approaches to drug policy.
Personal Experience With Marijuana
It does not appear that Sestak has publicly commented on any personal experience he’s had with marijuana.
Marijuana Under A Sestak Presidency
Though some reports indicate that Sestak supports medical cannabis reform, and he took one step to protect states that have implemented such programs during his time in Congress, there are more questions than answers when it comes to the candidate’s position on marijuana.
At the very least, his willingness to vote in favor of medical cannabis protections ahead of his state enacting a medical marijuana law should give patients in legal states some sense of comfort, although his limited record on the issue raises questions about whether he’d be willing to extend those protections to adult-use states—and whether cannabis reform would be a priority of his administration at all.
That said, the fact that he included a position on psychedelics reform on his campaign website signals that he’s cognizant of the issue and that his views on broader drug policy reform may have simply flown under the radar.
Hawaii Marijuana Decriminalization Will Take Effect, Governor Says
Hawaii Gov. David Ige (D), who has at times expressed serious concerns about marijuana policy reform, announced that he will allow a legislature-passed bill to decriminalize small amounts of cannabis to go into effect.
Ige didn’t include the decrim proposal in a list of legislation he intends to veto by Monday’s deadline.
Lawmakers sent the bill, which punishes possession of three grams of marijuana with a $130 fine instead of jail time, to the governor’s desk in April. As originally introduced, it covered greater amounts of marijuana in line with decriminalization policies in other states, but was watered down as it advanced through the legislative process.
Under current law, possessing cannabis is a petty misdemeanor that carries up to a $1,000 fine.
In a press conference to discuss his veto list, Ige called the marijuana legislation “a very tough call” and said went “go back and forth” on the issue before deciding to let the bill take effect.
The governor said he would have preferred if the decriminalization proposal included provisions aimed at “young people who we would want to get into substance abuse or other kinds of programs to help them deal with drug use.”
In the end, he said, he decided “it would be best not to veto that.”
Watch Ige discuss his decision not to veto marijuana decriminalization, about 23:35 into the video below:
Some legislative leaders have expressed interest in considering legislation to legalize and regulate marijuana.
Asked by a reporter about the possibility of broader cannabis reforms in Hawaii, Ige said that the state “can benefit from not being at the head of the table.”
“We continue to learn from other states about the problems that they see with recreational marijuana,” he said, echoing concerns he has about legalization and noting that he’s been discussing the possible reform with governors from some western states that have already enacted it. “We would be smart to engage and recognize what’s happening in other states, acknowledge the challenges and problems it has raised.”
Nikos Leverenz, board president for the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii, told Marijuana Moment that Ige should be “commended” for not vetoing the bill.
“It’s also encouraging that he’s having ongoing conversations with other governors from states that have legalized adult-use cannabis,” he said. “Hawai’i can indeed learn a great deal from other states, including the enactment of social equity measures to ensure broad local participation by women, underrepresented minorities, and those harmed by the drug war.”
Also on Monday, Ige announced that he intends to veto a bill allowing medical cannabis patients to transport their medicine between islands.
“Marijuana, including medical cannabis, remains illegal under federal law. Both the airspace and certain areas of water fall within the exclusive jurisdiction of the federal government,” he wrote. “This bill may lead travelers, acting in reliance on this provision, to erroneously believe they are immune from federal prosecution.”
Another proposal on the governor’s veto list would establish a hemp licensing program.
“There are concerns that this bill creates a licensing structure that cannot be enforced, will not meet USDA requirements for an approved industrial hemp program, and creates practical problems in the enforcement of existing medical cannabis,” he reasoned.
Finally, Ige plans to veto a bill to scale back the use of asset forfeiture, which is often used against people accused of drug crimes, with the governor calling the practice “an effective and critical law enforcement tool that prevents the economic benefits of committing a crime from outweighing consequential criminal penalties and punishment.”
USDA Sets Target Deadline To Release Hemp Regulations
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) offered new insights into its rulemaking process for hemp regulations in a notice published in the Federal Register on Monday.
Of particular note is the deadline by which USDA is aiming to release its interim final rule for the newly legal crop: August. Previously, the department simply said it would have the rules in place in time for the 2020 planting season.
“This action will initiate a new part 990 establishing rules and regulations for the domestic production of hemp,” the new notice states. “This action is required to implement provisions of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (Farm Bill).”
The hemp update update is part of a larger regulatory agenda for various agencies that’s being released by the Trump administration.
“It is great to see that USDA is on track to complete federal hemp farming regulations this year,” Eric Steenstra, president of Vote Hemp, told Marijuana Moment.
A USDA spokesperson told Marijuana Moment in an email that the August projection is the department’s “best estimate” for when the regulations will be released. It remains USDA’s intention “to have the regulations in place by this fall to allow for a 2020 planting season.”
“However, the clearance process will dictate the actual timing of the publication,” the spokesperson said.
While USDA officials have said the department didn’t plan to expedite the regulatory process despite strong interest among stakeholders, it seems to be making steady progress so far. The department said in March that it has “begun the process to gather information for rulemaking.”
USDA has also outlined the basic elements that will be required when states or tribes are eventually able to submit regulatory plans for federal approval. Those proposals will have to include information about the land that will be used to cultivate hemp, testing standards, disposal procedures, law enforcement compliance, annual inspections and certification for products and personnel.
The new update comes about six months after hemp and its derivatives were federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill. But until USDA releases its guidelines, hemp farmers must adhere to the earlier rules established under a narrower research-focused provision of the 2014 version of the agriculture legislation.
While the rules are yet to be published and there are therefore some restrictions on what hemp farmers can lawfully do, USDA has clarified several policies that have already gone into effect in recent months.
The department is accepting intellectual property applications for hemp products, for example. It also explained that hemp seeds can be lawfully imported from other countries and that the crop can be transported across state lines since it’s been federally descheduled.