Sessions Says He has “Serious Concerns” About Legal Marijuana….What’s Next?

Weedistry/August 9, 2017

With thousands of jobs and billions of dollars at stake, it’s a burning question: Is Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions preparing to mess with voter-approved sales of recreational marijuana?

It’s a question of prime importance in six Western and two New England states that have legalized marijuana use despite a federal law of the land classifying weed as a controlled, dangerous drug. And it appears Colorado, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Alaska, Maine and Massachusetts are likely to get a lot of company.

Fourteen additional states are planning similar recreational-sale initiatives, possibly this year. The rush to legalize marijuana has been driven by the potential tax and economic boosts of an industry already generating an estimated $6 billion in annual sales. Twenty-nine states also have decriminalized or legalized medical marijuana.

Last year, while still a Republican senator from Alabama, Sessions made his opposition clear: He called weed dangerous and “not something to laugh about.” The government needs “to send that message with clarity — that good people don’t smoke marijuana.”

This year, as President Trump’s new attorney general, Sessions said marijuana’s effect “is only slightly less awful” than heroin’s. (Nearly 13,000 people died from heroin overdoses in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while no one has ever been recorded as fatally overdosing on marijuana, the Drug Enforcement Administration says.)

So what does Sessions intend to do now?

He warned four governors in letters released last week that he had “serious concerns” about the effects of legalization and suggested the states’ drug detente with the Justice Department was at risk.

The letters were sent to Govs. Jay Inslee of Washington, John Hickenlooper of Colorado, Kate Brown of Oregon (all Democrats) and Bill Walker of Alaska (a left-leaning Independent).

In the similar-sounding letters, Sessions didn’t outright tip his hand regarding a possible federal crackdown, leaving government and industry officials to read the letters as tea leaves and interpret them differently. Some supporters of legalized weed are worried, some encouraged — just slightly.

Citing a series of recent federal and state investigations into the impact of pot legalization, Sessions listed repeated breakdowns in security, distribution and the controlled use of marijuana in all four states.

For example, a 2017 state police impact report on Oregon’s market, Sessions wrote, found that as much as two-thirds of marijuana production occurred in the black market; marijuana-related emergency room visits had soared by 55%; law enforcement was unable to keep pace with out-of-state cannabis diversion — pot grown legally in Oregon then shipped out of state.

Gov. Brown’s Salem office did not respond to a request for comment, nor did the Juneau office of Gov. Walker.

Sessions asked both Inslee and Hickenlooper — using the same language in separate letters — to prove that “all marijuana activity is compliant with state marijuana laws,” and told them the impact reports raise “serious questions about the efficacy of marijuana ‘regulatory structures’ in your state.”

The attorney general was, in part, responding to a letter sent to him in April co-signed by the four governors urging the administration to continue the Obama administration approach to state marijuana sales — regulate but don’t raid. The governors’ letter also asked “the Trump administration to engage with us before embarking on any changes to regulatory and enforcement systems.”

Inslee, who is worried about getting into a drug battle with the other Washington, reacted coolly to Sessions’ letter, saying it relied on “incomplete and unreliable data that does not provide the most accurate snapshot of our efforts since the marketplace opened in 2014.”

Washington state Atty. Gen. Bob Ferguson said he was disappointed by Sessions’ letter, and “also disappointed that [Sessions] has yet to accept my repeated invitations to meet in person to discuss this critical issue face to face.”

Colorado’s Hickenlooper, however, did meet recently with Sessions and told reporters he didn’t think a crackdown was in the works, partly because Sessions has too many other government balls to juggle.

Patrick Rosenstiel, spokesman for the New Federalism Fund — a collection of cannabis firms opposed to federal intervention of the state systems — saw an upside to Sessions’ letters. The letters suggest a willingness to work with the states, he said in a statement to The Times, “but there is still a need for congressional action to provide clarity for officials at the local, state and federal levels.”

Sessions had formed an anti-crime task force this year to study the legal marijuana issue. Last week, citing documents obtained from the task force, the Associated Press reported the study group is recommending the U.S. maintain sales oversight but keep its distance.

Critics speculated that was bad news for Sessions, since it would effectively continue the policy instituted under President Obama, guided by standards written by former Deputy Atty. Gen. James M. Cole. The 2013 Cole Memo, as the provisions are referred to, lists rules the states should follow to avoid federal intervention.

They include preventing distribution of cannabis to minors; blocking gangs, cartels or criminal enterprises from worming into the state system; and preventing marijuana shipments to states that haven’t legalized such sales.

Sessions asked Inslee to outline steps his state is taking “to combat diversion of marijuana, to protect public health and safety, and to prevent marijuana use by minors.”

Washington weed has been sent to 43 other states, Sessions said, referring to a 2016 impact report’s finding on intercepted mail shipments. More than a dozen THC labs (which extract the compound that gives cannabis its euphoric effect) literally exploded in one year alone, Sessions noted, and marijuana-related calls to poison centers soared.

Inslee and Ferguson said, contrary to Sessions’ claim that 17 THC extraction labs exploded in Washington state in 2014, “no licensed extraction business has exploded” in three years of sales. “The incidents referred to in Sessions’ letter were black- or gray-market facilities, often using butane in an enclosed space rather than a lab.”

In his letter to Hickenlooper, Sessions said interdicted shipments of Colorado weed were headed for 34 other states, and he noted that marijuana-related traffic accidents and deaths were on the rise in Colorado.

“Although youth marijuana use declined at the national level for the time period after Colorado enacted ‘recreational marijuana’ laws, youth use in Colorado ‘increased 20%,’” Sessions wrote, quoting from an impact report done in conjunction with the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Sessions Task Force Will Review DOJ Cannabis Enforcement

Leafly/April 6, 2017/Gage Peake

Attorney General Jeff Sessions sent out a memo on Wednesday to U.S. Attorneys announcing the formation of a new task crime reduction task force. The task force will review how the Department of Justice enforces cannabis laws, among other things, and will report its initial recommendations by July 27, 2017.

In the memo, which was sent to federal prosecutors and the heads of Justice Department agencies, Sessions said that task force subcommittees will focus on a variety of issues, including:

Developing violent crime reduction strategies, supporting prevention and re-entry efforts, updating charging and sentencing policies, reviewing asset forfeiture guidance, reducing illegal immigration and human trafficking, combating hate crimes, and evaluating marijuana enforcement policy.

Sessions did not announce how many people are on the task force, who they are, or whether they have positions inside or outside the federal government.

On the topic of cannabis, the task force will “review existing policies in the areas of charging, sentencing, and marijuana to ensure consistency with the department’s overall strategy on reducing violent crime and with administration goals and priorities.”

So it seems as if cannabis will be included into a subcommittee that is looking at the appropriate levels of charging and sentencing.

This seems to add to the uncertainty in the cannabis industry, as Sessions has sent many mixed messages on cannabis and its continued federal prohibition.

In February, Sessions said that the DOJ will try and adopt more “responsible policies” for enforcing cannabis laws. Experts told him, he said, that there is more violence around cannabis than one would think.

One of the other subcommittee’s will explore the use of asset forfeiture, and make recommendations on any improvements to legal authorities, policies, and training to most effectively attack the financial infrastructure of criminal organizations.

The new task force is not specifically focused on the enforcement of federal cannabis laws. The Violent Crime Reduction Strategy Development Subcommittee will make recommendations for the department’s overall violent crime reduction strategy, which according to the memo, will focus on enforcement against violent offenders.

The subcommittee will also focus on immigration enforcement and human trafficking to ensure that the federal government has “an aggressive and coordinated strategy to deter those who violate our boarders and subject others to forced labor, involuntary servitude, sex trafficking, and other forms of modern-day slavery.

Sessions added that the DOJ also must protect the civil rights of all Americans, and accordingly, the Hate Crimes Subcommittee will “develop a plan to appropriately address hate crimes and better protect the rights of all Americans.”


Lawmakers Call for Legal Marijuana in Minnesota

Lawmakers Call for Legal Marijuana in Minnesota

Minneapolis Star Tribune/February 9, 2017/J. Patrick Coolican

A handful of Democratic lawmakers in Minnesota want to legalize marijuana for personal use, bringing an issue popular with progressive voters nationwide to a state where currently the law

“This is a conversation starter,” Rep. Jason Metsa, DFL-Virginia, said Thursday, acknowledging the uphill battle for legalization.

Rep. Tina Liebling, who joined Metsa and Reps. Jon Applebaum and Alice Hausman at a packed news conference, said prohibition is “costly, harmful and antiquated.”

In 2015, Liebling said, law enforcement made 6,829 arrests for marijuana, which was 39 percent of all drug arrests.

They said prohibition is not working in preventing marijuana use while at the same time wasting police resources, causing users to interact with the black market and preventing Minnesotans who get arrested and jailed from finding housing and work later in life.

For now, prohibition is here to stay. The DFL legislators said they were in discussions with GOP lawmakers, but as of yet no Republicans have signed on.

Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, a retired police officer who chairs the House Public Safety Committee, is adamantly opposed to legalization and has been for years.

As is DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, who said Wednesday he is against the idea: “We’ve got enough drugs, an epidemic of drugs that’s floating through our society right now. And law enforcement’s got to deal with all the consequences of it. Whether it’s more or less harmful than alcohol, the fact is, alcohol causes a great many terrible tragedies around the state, on the roads and the like.”

Nationally, advocates for legalization have some momentum. Voters in four states approved marijuana for personal use in the November election, including California. About one out of five Americans now live in a state where marijuana is legal, including the entire West Coast and a new foothold in the East via Massachusetts.

The Minnesota Legislature in 2014 passed a bill legalizing medical marijuana for specific health conditions.

Wisconsin legislation

In Wisconsin, two Democratic state lawmakers have reintroduced legislation that would legalize medical marijuana in the state.

Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, and Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, are sponsoring two proposals aimed at legalizing cannabis for medical use. The first, the Compassionate Cannabis Care Act, would legalize medical marijuana in the state. The second bill would authorize a statewide advisory referendum allowing citizens to weigh in on whether they support medical legalization.

Similar legislation introduced during the last legislative session never received a hearing in the House or Senate.

Gov. Scott Walker said last month he doesn’t support legalizing medical marijuana.

Wisconsin Public Radio contributed to this report.

Sessions Hearings Fail to Answer Questions on Cannabis

Sessions Hearings Fail to Answer Questions on Cannabis

Leafly/January 12, 2017/Ben Adlin

This week’s confirmation hearings for Sen. Jeff Sessions, President-elect Trump’s pick for attorney general, did little to ease cannabis advocates’ fears that the incoming administration could put state-legal cannabis programs at risk.

Asked by one senator about state cannabis laws, Sessions “gave a wishy-washy non-answer that provides little comfort to medical marijuana patients, state officials, and others,” Bill Piper, senior director of the Drug Policy Alliance’s office of national affairs, said Thursday in a conference call with reporters.

“He was clear that federal law makes possession and distribution a crime and that he would enforce federal law,” added Alison Parker, the US director of Human Rights Watch.

Since the election, the cannabis community has been forced to read tea leaves in an effort to predict how the Trump administration might approach state-legal cannabis. While Trump in the past has professed support for states’ rights and medical marijuana, his nomination of Sessions, a staunch drug war proponent, left many scratching their heads.

Quizzed this week on the relationships between state cannabis programs and federal law, Sessions played his cards close to his chest.

“One obvious concern is that the United States Congress made the possession of marijuana in every state, and the distribution of it, an illegal act,” he said in response to a question from Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah). “If that’s something that’s not desired any longer, Congress should pass a law to change the rule.”

As Reason’s Eric Boehm wrote, that answer is technically correct—but it still doesn’t tell us much.

As a matter of basic civics, yes, Sessions is right about all that. Congress should be the ones to decide when marijuana is legal or illegal at the federal level and the Justice Department is supposed to enforce the laws, not make them. That’s hardly a controversial or revealing statement.

Practically, though, Sessions would have tremendous power as attorney general to decide exactly what “enforce laws effectively as we are able” means. Without needing approval from Congress, Sessions could send federal agents to arrest growers, shut down dispensaries, and freeze the bank accounts of marijuana businesses.

For now, a Congressional provision known as the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment prevents federal prosecutors from going after state-legal medical cannabis operations. But that measure is set to expire in April of this year, and its protections currently don’t extend to adult-use programs.

If confirmed, Sessions would oversee the US Department of Justice, setting policies and enforcement priorities for federal prosecutors across the country. The Justice Department also is the parent agency of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Even if Sessions were to decline to target cannabis nationally, he could sign off on initiatives by federal prosecutors at the state level, such as when former US Attorney General Eric Holder approved a 2011 crackdown on California cannabis businesses.

Such arbitrary enforcement of federal law is “not good for the marijuana industry or patients that benefit from these programs,” said Jonathan Banks, a criminal justice research associate at the Cato Institute.

“More than half the states have legalized some sort of marijuana use,” Banks said, “and there was nothing in that hearing that led us to believe that [Sessions is] going to be any better than he has been in the past.”

The Alabama senator’s past statements condemning cannabis have been widely reported at this point. “Good people don’t smoke marijuana,” he once said. He’s also joked that he thought members of the Klu Klux Klan “were OK until I found out they smoked pot.”

Not everyone felt threatened by the responses from Sessions, however.  Troy Dayton, co-founder of the Oakland, Calif.-based Arcview Group, said the AG nominee “left the door open [to enforcement of federal law] but indicated it would be a low priority. That’s a huge victory considering [Sessions’] previous inflammatory statements about this topic,” Bloomberg reported.

“He also recognized that enforcing federal marijuana laws would be dependent upon the availability of resources, the scarcity of which poses a problem,” Robert Capecchi, the Marijuana Policy Project’s director of federal policies, said in a statement. “He was given the opportunity to take an extreme prohibitionist approach, and he passed on it.”

Tom Angell, chair of legalization advocacy group Marijuana Majority, said in a statement he’s “hopeful the new administration will realize that any crackdown against broadly popular laws in a growing number of states would create huge political problems they don’t need and will use lots of political capital they’d be better off spending on issues the new president cares a lot more about.”

Many were disappointed that senators didn’t push harder for a clear response from Sessions to questions about state-legal cannabis. Most Washington, DC, pundits expect to see Sessions easily confirmed by the full Senate, meaning the future for cannabis in the United States remains a mystery.