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Bush-Era Attorney General Cautions Against Cannabis Crackdown

November 22, 2017
Former US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales speaks in support of a coalition’s efforts to raise awareness about human trafficking on March 7, 2013. (Erik Schelzig/AP)
US Attorney General Jeff Sessions has far more important things to do than crack down on state-legal cannabis, the US attorney general under President George W. Bush told Newsweek in recent interview.

“We’ve got other priorities we ought to be spending our resources on.”
Alberto Gonzales, former US attorney general

“With respect to everything else going on in the US, this is pretty low-priority,” former US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said, adding that because the Department of Justice has limited enforcement resources, prioritization is essential.

“To prosecute an act that is otherwise lawful under state law,” he continued, “one could make the argument [that] as a matter of policy, we’ve got other priorities we ought to be spending our resources on.”

While Sessions has yet to take action to dismantle legal cannabis programs in 29 US states and the District of Columbia, he’s repeatedly lashed out at both medical and adult-use legalization.

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Late last month, for example, he doubled-down on the false claim that cannabis is largely responsible for the current opioid crisis. “When you talk to police chiefs, consistently they say much of the addiction starts with marijuana. It’s not a harmless drug,” he said. “We’ve got to re-establish, first, a view that you should just say no.”

It was a startling claim, especially given that his immediate predecessor, Obama-era AG Loretta Lynch, said most opioid addiction affects “individuals that started out with a prescription drug problem, and then because they need more and more, they turn to heroin.”

“It isn’t so much marijuana is the step right before using prescription drugs or opioids,” she said.

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For his part, Gonzales has long been a personal supporter of state-legal cannabis. Asked by CNN in late 2012 about federal prohibition of cannabis, he said, “I personally believe it’s a mistake.”

“Being a former state official of Texas,” he added, “I certainly believe in the rights of states to make these kinds of decisions for their own people.”

Sessions has yet to come down hard on state-legal cannabis despite his sharp criticism of legalization. His office is currently reviewing the Cole memo, a Department of Justice guidance document that sets a policy of noninterference with state-legal cannabis markets.

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One thing worth keeping in mind: Sessions doesn’t necessarily have the final say. As Gonzales told Newsweek, “What people often fail to understand or appreciate is that the attorney general works for the president.”

This could help explain why Sessions so far has been ranting against legal cannabis rather than filing legal actions against it. Trump may simply have Sessions on a short leash. After all, it’s not entirely clear where the president stands on legalization (he’s made conflicting statements) and, besides Sessions, his administration has been largely silent on cannabis. Trump, unlike Sessions, seems to share Gonzales’ view that the country has bigger fish to fry.

It’s also hard to justify a crackdown at a time when the bulk of Americans are against it. Nearly three-quarters of Americans opposed a federal crackdown in a recent survey—and 94% supported medical cannabis.

“The optics just aren’t very good, quite frankly,” Gonzales said.

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Ben Adlin

Ben Adlin is a senior editor at Leafly who specializes in politics and the law. Follow him on Twitter: @badlin

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  • for freedom not more laws

    I think it has more to do with the Branch of government that collects taxes. I believe they are the ones holding the DEA at Bay. Colorado is a billion tax revenue that could not be replaced if a crackdown was to take place. The economy would definitely be felt from all social classes. Just like the war on drugs was a economy stimulator with the alphabet government departments bringing in the drugs and funding the distribution. In return they get to get funding and bigger budgets to combat the one sided war. The only war is on the way people want to experience consciousness. If we were not to change our consciousness way of perceiving reality then God would have made it to were nothing influenced the perception of difference in consciousness.

    • Jeffrey Simpson

      What does your last sentence mean?

  • calvet11

    The “War on Drugs” has never been about the health and general good of the citizen’s of the USA. It has always been about money, uncommon good sense and a little research will tell anyone, what an exceptional plant cannabis is. Greed and power over others is the only reason behind cannabis probation. Little Jeff Sessions is just making himself and the President, look like uninformed dummy’s by hanging on to “Reefer Madness”.

  • Jeffrey Simpson

    I had the pleasure, along with about 500 others to hear Johann Hari speak about drugs and addiction a few nights ago in Vancouver. He is the author of ‘Chasing the Scream – the First and Last Days of the War on Drugs’. If you have not read that book, it is definitely one to add to your ‘must read list’. What addicts want is relief from the pain – whether that pain be physical, mental, or emotional – and the drugs do temporarily take the pain away. To stop the war on drugs we must stop the war on the vulnerable. Look to Switzerland, Portugal, Vancouver, BC, and New York for insights on stopping the war and helping the addicted. It is a health problem not a criminal problem.

  • lovingc

    The so-called war on drugs is actually a war on the american people’s freedom. It has been a continuing attack against the first amendment. Nixon’s hatred of the antiwar left and blacks has always been the target of this phony war. You younger people don’t realize this has been going on with out stop except for the Obama presidency. There is no real reason for the war except to try to prevent you from consuming a plant. By the way it has never worked. It is however a constant harm to the people of this country. A cannabis charge will follow you for as long as the people allow it to happen. LEGALIZE NOW!

    • BA5578

      “with out stop except for the Obama presidency”: I suppose that’s why after eight years of Obama’s presidency, all we have is a memo (Cole Memo) that advised the Dept. of Justice to ignore federal law and allow the states to continue their course with state- enacted cannabis reform. Unfortunately, during Obama’s presidency, people still went to jail for cannabis- related offenses. He could have done SO MUCH more, like encourage Congress to actually change the law! In the first few years of Obama’s administration, there were many federal- led crack downs on cannabis- based businesses, even in legal states.
      I believe that Jeff Sessions was a bad pick for AG, but he said something a while back that made sense. “I was hired to enforce the law. If Congress believes that the prohibition of marijuana is a bad idea, then they have the power to change the law!”