Congressional Marijuana Reformers Differ on Sessions as AG

Two of the leading supporters of marijuana law reform in Congress have starkly different predictions about what could happen to state cannabis policies if President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for attorney general is confirmed.

While Trump repeatedly pledged to respect state marijuana laws on the campaign trail, his choice to lead the Department of Justice, U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, is an outspoken legalization opponent.

But Congressman Dana Rohrabacher of California, a Republican who loyally backed Trump during the campaign, is optimistic that as the nation’s top law enforcement officer Sessions would let his general support for states’ rights outweigh his personal disdain for marijuana.

“This president has made clear that he believes in a states’ rights approach to marijuana,” he told Marijuana Business Daily last week after the Sessions pick was announced. “And if the president is in favor of a states’ rights approach to marijuana, I am certain that Jeff Sessions, being a man of high integrity, will not be undermining his president’s position and [will]be enforcing what Trump wants rather than what Sessions has done in the past.”

Rohrabacher, whose name has been floated as a possible Trump nominee for secretary of state, has been a leading sponsor of successful amendments to prevent the Department of Justice from interfering with state medical marijuana laws, among other reforms.

In September, Rohrabacher said he has “spoken to Mr. Trump personally, and he has assured me that if he were to become president he intended to honor the states’ rights to medical marijuana laws.”

But another ardent champion of marijuana law reform in Congress isn’t so sure that the new administration can be trusted to follow through on Trump’s campaign pledges.

Congressman Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat, says he wants the Senate to “do its job” by refusing to confirm Sessions as attorney general, saying, “The thought of Jeff Sessions at the helm of our justice system is deeply disturbing.”

A local TV station in Portland described Blumenauer as “wary” and “leery” of Sessions’s approach to marijuana following an interview.

Blumenauer, who advised Trump opponent Hillary Clinton on marijuana issues during the presidential campaign, has taken the lead on several drug policy reform measures in Congress, including amendments to increase military veterans’ access to medical cannabis.

Though concerned about what the Trump Justice Department’s approach to marijuana will be, Blumenauer maintains some optimism that things could work out. “I am hopeful that the next administration, regardless of the attorney general’s personal feelings, will respect the 10th Amendment and states’ rights to set their own policy in regards to cannabis,” he said.

Sessions On Marijuana

Sessions has repeatedly spoken out against efforts to reform cannabis laws over the years.

In a Senate hearing on the federal response to state marijuana laws in April, he said, “good people don’t smoke marijuana,” and implied that even discussion of legalization could create a gateway effect to increased use of other drugs.

Sessions, a former U.S. attorney, has criticized President Obama for his administration’s approach to the issue. “His lax treatment and comments on marijuana, it’s been obvious, it reverses 20 years almost of hostility to drugs, begun really, when Nancy Reagan started the ‘Just Say No’ program,” he said.

While Sessions was under consideration for a federal judgeship in 1986, a former deputy accused him of saying that the Ku Klux Klan “were OK until I found out they smoked pot.” Sessions later said the remark was an out-of-context joke, but it and other racially charged comments soon led to his nomination’s rejection by the Senate Judiciary Committee, a body on which he now sits as a member and which will consider his confirmation as the nation’s top law enforcement officer.

During last year’s confirmation hearing for Loretta Lynch, the current attorney general, Sessions questioned her about marijuana policy, forcefully pressing for more federal action on the issue in light of the relative leeway the Obama administration has given to states to implement their own laws.

“I hope that you will cease to be silent, because if the law enforcement officers don’t do this, I don’t know who will. And in the past, attorneys general and other government officials have spoken out and I think kept bad decisions from being made,” he said.

In a Senate floor speech, Sessions decried the rise of state marijuana legalization and harkened back to Reagan administration. “Now we have states legalizing it, and they are already talking about recriminalizing it. It is a mistake. We have seen that experiment before. Lives are at stake,” he said. “The federal government led the way with tough sentencing, eliminating parole, targeting dangerous drugs in effective ways, and states and local governments followed.”

Sessions on States’ Rights

Sessions’s past remarks indicate he isn’t a fan of letting states set their own marijuana laws without federal interference, setting up an early potential conflict inside the new administration. But it also presents an internal conflict for Sessions, who has been outspoken in support of states’ rights in general.

For example, in a 2011 speech to the Federalist Society, he decried “the explosion of federal criminal law, the abandonment of the ideal of limited government” and said that President Obama “lacks, in my opinion, sufficient respect for the limited nature of the federal government.”

Sessions also said, “There are too many [laws]that really don’t need to be federal laws, and many of them are too complex,” arguing that “the federal government is a government of limited powers.”

Making the case for local control over criminal law enforcement, he said, “If you pick up a rock in Alabama and you whack somebody and kill them, that is not a federal crime and I don’t think can be made a federal crime, unless it’s denying them the right to vote or some specific Constitutionally-protected right. It’s just not jurisdiction.”

Trump on Marijuana and States’ Rights

If Sessions does want to crack down on state marijuana laws despite his general opposition to federal overreach, Trump will have to decide how much rein to give the attorney general to go against his repeated campaign pledges.

“I really believe you should leave it up to the states. It should be a state situation,” Trump said during a campaign rally. “In terms of marijuana and legalization, I think that should be a state issue, state by state.”

Similarly, in an interview with a Denver TV station, he said, “I think it’s up to the states. I’m a states person. I think it should be up to the states, absolutely.”

And at the Conservative Political Action Conference Trump said that when it comes to state marijuana laws, “If they vote for it, they vote for it.”

In order to serve as attorney general, Sessions must first be confirmed by the Senate after he is formally nominated early next year.

Photo Courtesy of Allie Beckett.

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