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Sessions Told Senators He Had No Plans for Cannabis Crackdown

March 3, 2017

In the weeks leading up to his Feb. 8 confirmation as US attorney general, then-Sen. Jeff Sessions quietly assured some of his Republican colleagues that he had no plans to strictly enforce federal law on cannabis. Instead, he privately told a few select members of Congress, he planned to maintain the stance of the previous administration, respecting states’ right with a laissez-faire attitude.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) informed Politico of Sessions’ behind-closed-doors comments. “He told me he would have respect for states’ rights on these things,” Paul said. “And so I’ll be very unhappy if the federal government decides to go into Colorado and Washington and all of these places. And that’s not what my interpretation of my conversation with him was. That wasn’t his intention.” Politico published Paul’s comments yesterday.

Paul wasn’t the only senator to confer with Sessions regarding a cannabis crackdown. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) also met with the AG nominee. Gardner indicated that Sessions left him feeling reassured that there were no plans to go after states with legal cannabis markets.

“Nothing at this point has changed,” Gardner told constituents during a recent telephone town hall. Gardner said he reached out to the White House for clarification after Sean Spicer’s recent comments, but did not say whether he received that clarification. Gardner told his Colorado constituents that he did not expect any major policy change.

News of the closed-door reassurances comes as other members of Congress press the White House for reassurance about federal non-interference with state cannabis laws.

In response to the troubling comments from the White House Press Secretary, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) joined with others lawmakers to send a letter to Attorney General Sessions asking for further clarification and urging him to respect states’ rights.

Warren pointed to the Cole memorandum, issued by the Department of Justice in 2013 as guidance for federal prosecutors.

“These voter-approved laws have been evaluated by Governors and state Attorney Generals, rigorously debated by state legislatures and the communities they serve, and implemented through thoughtful processes to ensure the proper regulated production and sale of marijuana,” Warren wrote in the letter.

“We respectfully request that you uphold the DOJ’s existing policy regarding states that have implemented strong and effective regulations for recreational marijuana use and ask that the Cole Memorandum remain in place.”

The letter was signed by Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Patty Murray (D-WA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Jeff Merkeley (D-OR), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Ed Markey (D-MA), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV).

Sen. Cortez Masto’s Republican counterpart, Sen. Dean Heller, confirmed that he discussed the topic of federal cannabis enforcement with AG Sessions, and urged the Department of Justice to continue with the current policy. He also penned his own letter to the attorney general in response to Spicer’s remarks.

“As you well know, Nevada voters passed a measure last year to provide for the legalization of recreational marijuana,” Heller wrote. “While I maintain that, unlike medical marijuana, I have serious concerns on whether or not the benefits of recreational marijuana outweigh the drawbacks, I recognize and respect the will of Nevadans.”

Murkowski, of Alaska, the only Republican to sign on to Warren’s letter, expressed similar sentiments regarding the will of her state’s voters. She vowed to continue watching the Justice Department for any action that would affect legalized states.

“It’s probably a little premature to try and predict what may or may not be coming out of the administration on this, so I think we just need to sit back and see,” Murkowski said.

A spokesman for the Justice Department responded that the “department’s current policy is reflected in the 2013 Cole Memo.”

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Lisa Rough

Lisa is a former associate editor at Leafly, where she specialized in legislative cannabis policy and industry topics.

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