The Department of Justice is seeking to tamp down fears of an impending crackdown on legal marijuana after Attorney General Jeff Sessions and White House press secretary Sean Spicer hinted at a potential policy shift.
“The department’s current policy is reflected in the 2013 Cole Memo,” a DOJ spokesman told Politico on Thursday, referring to the Obama-era guidance urging federal prosecutors to refrain from targeting state-legal marijuana operations. This guidance is not law, and the Trump administration has the power to reverse it.
Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) also told Politico that Sessions had privately assured them that he didn’t intend to interfere with states that have legalized weed for recreational use.
Spicer first touched off concern among marijuana and states’ rights advocates last week, when he spoke about the issue in much more uncertain terms. He said the Trump administration viewed medical and recreational marijuana as two separate issues, then compared weed to the opioid addiction crisis and raised the possibility of enhanced federal enforcement.
“There’s still a federal law that we need to abide by when it comes to recreational marijuana and other drugs of that nature,” Spicer said. “I do believe that you’ll see greater enforcement of it. Recreational use ... is something the Department of Justice will be looking into.”
Sessions did little to dispel the resulting anxiety in a conversation with reporters Monday.
“States, they can pass the laws they choose,” Sessions said. “I would just say it does remain a violation of federal law to distribute marijuana throughout any place in the United States, whether a state legalizes it or not.”
I would just say it does remain a violation of federal law to distribute marijuana throughout any place in the United States, whether a state legalizes it or not. Attorney General Jeff Sessions
Sessions also restated his personal opposition to marijuana and argued that legal marijuana leads to increased levels of violence, a claim that appears to have very little statistical backing. The DOJ is “looking” at the Cole Memo, he added, noting that it has some valuable points.
Drug policy reformers were quick to point out that cracking down on state-legal marijuana operations would violate President Donald Trump’s campaign promise to respect states’ positions on the issue. And indeed, Trump repeatedly said during a private meeting with governors on Monday that he believes states should be free to craft their own policies without fear of federal intrusion. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) told The Huffington Post’s Jen Bendery that she took this to mean legal marijuana in her state ― as well as in Washington, D.C., and the seven other states that have legalized weed ― should be safe.
Not everyone is so confident.
A group of 11 senators sent Sessions a letter on Thursday, explaining that any uncertainty regarding the federal government’s approach to legal marijuana can have damaging effects at the state level.
“It is essential that states that have implemented any type of practical, effective marijuana policy receive immediate assurance from the DOJ that it will respect the ability of states to enforce thoughtful, sensible drug policies in ways that do not threaten the public’s health and safety,” they wrote. “This ensures that state infrastructure, including tax revenue, small businesses, and jobs, can be protected; DOJ resources can be used most effectively; and most importantly, that marijuana can be properly regulated to improve public health and safety.”
The senators also encouraged Sessions to keep the framework of the Cole Memo, and to include state and local officials in any discussions about shifting away from the current policy. Although the DOJ says it has no plans to do any of that just yet, the department’s assurances aren’t binding and its position is subject to change.