Attorney General Jeff Sessions has asked for congress’ support in going after state-level purveyors and users of medicinal cannabis, a drug which experts believe could help combat our nation’s opioid epidemic (among other things).
In a May letter obtained by activist Tom Angell for MassRoots, Sessions asked leading members of congress to reject federal law establishing that the enforcement of states’ medical marijuana policies is a matter, and a right, for states themselves. As Leafly reported, the protections have created legal barriers for the Justice Department, currently led by Sessions, in its quest to enforce the federal cannabis ban in states whose voters have chosen to allow the plant’s use and sale.
Established in 2014, the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment prohibits the use of federal funds in preventing states “from implementing their own State laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession or cultivation of medical marijuana.” In a letter urging congresspeople to walk back the amendment, Sessions said the law would “inhibit [his department’s]authority to enforce the Controlled Substances Act.”
Last month, Sessions reportedly sent the letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. In it, he referred to Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) conclusions that have been highly criticized by medical experts, including “[that]marijuana has a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision.”
The U.S. attorney general also wrote that “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.”
As Leafly and others have pointed out, however, states with legalized medical cannabis on the books have in fact seen opioid deaths decline by an average of 25%. And while cannabis-related arrests are indeed terribly common, the drug’s relationship to a “potentially” permanent rise in violent crime has not been established.
Attorney Doug Fischer, Chief Legal Officer for the self-regulatory National Association of Cannabis Businesses, commented by phone that he perceives two aspects to the Justice Department’s move–one that’s “not concerning” to the cannabis industry, necessarily, and “one that should be.”
On the one hand, “it’s not surprising that the Justice Department wants maximum discretion to enforce federal law,” Fischer noted. “Under certain leadership, it would be at least possible if not likely that another attorney general, even one [under a Democratic administration], would feel that way, would want to be unfettered to enforce the law, and wouldn’t want the amendment getting in the way of what they see as legitimate prosecution.”
At the same time, Fischer said, Attorney General Sessions is “an outspoken opponent of the legal cannabis cannabis industry.” Fischer explained that, through action and deed, Sessions has established that he “does not believe marijuana is a medicine,” and does believe that federal laws prohibiting cannabis’ use and sale alongside drugs like heroin and cocaine should be enforced.
Fischer also pointed out that there has been “a growing set of congresspeople whose constituencies want those protections” as afforded by the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment. “Politically, medical marijuana is a winner, and incredibly popular with the public.”
Notwithstanding Sessions’ letter, he added, it therefore seems unlikely that congress will simply do what the AG wants in this area.
The attorney general’s full letter to congress is available here.
[Updated at 10:07am EDT to include Mr. Fischer’s comments]