Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently announced that he would be revoking the Obama-era Cole memo that instructed the Department of Justice not to enforce federal marijuana prohibition in states that had legalized it. Under his plan, U.S. Attorneys would have discretion over how they prosecuted offenders leaving a hodgepodge of unpredictability.
Despite a majority of voters (64%), and a majority of Republicans (51%), supporting the legalization of recreational marijuana, Jeff Sessions has decided to reverse five years of federal policy. The unrepentant drug warrior has forced the issue to the surface and put both Republicans and Democrats on the spot.
With healthy majorities of both parties supporting legalization, Jeff Sessions may have just forced Republicans and Democrats to legalize marijuana nationwide.
The measure preventing Jeff Sessions from acting on marijuana could expire
For the past five years, two factors have all but prevented the federal government from enforcing marijuana prohibition. The first was the Cole memo, which Jeff Sessions is rescinding and replacing with a policy designed to create confusion.
The other impediment was the Rohrabacher amendment attached to an omnibus spending bill that prevented the DOJ from spending funds to interfere with the implementation of state medical cannabis laws. The amendment was included in the latest three week continuing resolution that expires on January 19th.
As an amendment, and not legislation, the provision must be renewed with each new spending bill. Jeff Sessions has previously written Congress asking them not to include the measure in future continuing resolutions to no avail. Nonetheless, Sessions is likely hoping that he will be able to convince Republicans and Democrats to remove the amendment from the next spending bill.
The failure to renew the Rohrabacher amendment would allow the Department of Justice the funds to begin interfering with state marijuana law once again. Regardless of whether the Attorney General’s decision results in immediate enforcement actions, the mere threat is enough to create the kind of uncertainty that can hinder or endanger investment in what is now a multi-billion dollar industry operating in accordance with numerous states’ laws.
That potential consequence may well be part of Sessions’ motivation.
The Attorney General’s actions may result in the legalization of marijuana sooner rather than later
While Jeff Sessions may think that he’s won, in reality he’s merely opened up a can of worms. Senators and Congressmen from both parties are outraged with the decision to interfere with the will of voters in their states. Chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO) released the following statement:
Reports that the Justice Department will rescind their current policy on legal marijuana enforcement are extremely alarming. Before I voted to confirm Attorney General Sessions, he assured me that marijuana would not be a priority for this Administration. Today’s action directly contradicts what I was told, and I am prepared to take all steps necessary, including holding DOJ nominees, until the Attorney General lives up to the commitment he made to me prior to his confirmation. In 2016, President Trump said marijuana legalization should be left up to the states and I agree.
The Senator also tweeted:
This reported action directly contradicts what Attorney General Sessions told me prior to his confirmation. With no prior notice to Congress, the Justice Department has trampled on the will of the voters in CO and other states.
— Cory Gardner (@SenCoryGardner) January 4, 2018
The fact that the sixth highest ranking Republican has already released a statement condemning Jeff Sessions’ dishonesty, and announcing he will obstruct the confirmation process, speaks volumes. This is merely the opening salvo in what will become a war that Sessions can’t hope to win.
Both sides are in the clear to argue for marijuana legalization. Republicans have the states’ rights argument against federal government interference. Democrats can claim they support personal choice. With majorities of Republican and Democrat voters in favor of marijuana legalization, there’s no political danger in making those arguments.
Jeff Sessions has unwittingly offered a great gift to whichever political party is forward thinking enough to take it. The trend line for support of marijuana legalization is only moving one direction, and both parties should recognize the importance of taking advantage of demographic changes before they occur.
Republicans and Democrats have an enormous incentive to protect states that have legalized marijuana from federal government interference. The party that comes out on top will have won the latest culture war and have engendered the support of tens of millions of voters for years to come.
Thanks to Jeff Sessions’ short-sighted move, Republicans and Democrats will be forced to take permanent action regarding the legalization of marijuana.
(Photo of then-U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama speaking to supporters at an immigration policy speech hosted by Donald Trump at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona by Gage Skidmore)