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What Trump’s New AG Pick Could Mean for Cannabis

December 7, 2018
President Donald Trump confirmed on Friday that he plans to nominate William Barr, a Republican lawyer and former Justice Department official, to replace ousted Attorney General Jeff Sessions. What would that mean for cannabis?

Barr has already served once as US attorney general, from 1991 to 1993, during which he earned a reputation as a harsh anti-drug advocate under then-President George H.W. Bush. Bush had made the drug war a centerpiece of his administration, going so far as to call drugs “the greatest domestic threat facing our nation today.” The question now is whether Barr will take a similarly tough approach under Trump, who has said relatively little about legal cannabis during his time in office.

“I think it’s difficult to look through a lens that existed in 1991 and 1993 and extrapolate that to this time.”
Barry Grissom, former US Attorney for Kansas

Part of what made Jeff Sessions’ tenure as AG so remarkable was the sense that his views on cannabis had been borrowed from a Reagan-era after-school special and preserved even as public opinion steadily shifted over the decades.

In 1986, Sessions joked of the Ku Klux Klan, “I thought those guys were OK until I learned they smoked pot.” Nearly 30 later, he was still whistling the same tune. “Good people don’t smoke marijuana,” he said at a 2016 Senate hearing.

(Pew Research Center)

In other words, Sessions seems to have been almost entirely immune to the massive shift in public opinion that’s taken place since the late 1980s. Barr, meanwhile, may have evolved—though it’s hard to know for sure.


Trump Fires Attorney General Jeff Sessions

Reason to Worry?

As Kyle Jaeger at Marijuana Moment points out, Barr’s years in the Bush administration could be cause for concern among legalization advocates:

The prospective nominee seems to share a worldview with the late president under whom he served. Bush called for “more prisons, more jails, more courts, more prosecutors” to combat drug use and dramatically increased the federal drug control budget to accomplish that goal. In 1992, Barr sanctioned a report that made the “case for more incarceration” as a means to reduce violent crime.

In the 1990s, Barr embraced tough criminal sentences for drug offenses and supported Bush’s call for a $1.5 billion increase in federal police spending— the biggest single increase in the history of drug enforcement. As recently as 2015, he wrote to lawmakers urging them to oppose sentencing reform. The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), which supports decriminalizing drugs and pursuing policies based on harm reduction, called Barr “a fierce advocate for mass incarceration and punitive drug policies.”


New York Cops Still Making Cannabis Arrests, Despite Mayor’s Policy

“It’s hard to imagine an Attorney General as bad as Jeff Sessions when it comes to criminal justice and the drug war, but Trump seems to have found one,” Michael Collins, DPA’s director of national affairs, said in a press release. “William Barr is a disastrous choice.”

Room for Optimism

The steady shift in public opinion around cannabis in the US has been one of the more remarkable social movements in recent decades. According to the Pew Research Center, public support for full legalization has climbed from a low of 12% in 1969 to nearly two-thirds (62%) in 2018. Almost 9 in 10 voters now support medical legalization, a separate poll found.


Support for Cannabis Legalization Grows to 62%

While Sessions may not have updated his views in decades, Barr very plausibly has.

“Mr. Barr is a very smart man, and I don’t have any doubt that he’s fully apprised of the failures of the drug war,” said Barry Grissom, who served as the US attorney in Kansas from 2010 to 2016. “As to what his leanings might be concerning cannabis, I think it’s difficult to look through a lens that existed in 1991 and 1993 and extrapolate that to this time.”

pew marijuana legalization poll 2

(Pew Research Center)

Grissom, who’s now a senior vice president and corporate counsel for cannabis advisory firm Electrum Partners, has been reading about Barr all day, he said, and “I can’t find anything that makes me believe that he is falling into the category of a true believer. I see him as someone who’s an institutionalist. I don’t think he’s going to relive 1991 to 1993.”

Justin Strekal, political director NORML, said it would be “utterly absurd” for Barr to direct the Justice Department to interfere with adult-use or medical cannabis programs up and running in a majority of US states. He urged senators to probe Barr’s views on cannabis during the confirmation process.


Blumenauer: Congress Will Be ‘Better Than Ever’ on Cannabis

“Over half of the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee represent states that have or are in the process of enacting a legal marijuana marketplace,” he said in a press release. “It is our intention that Mr. Barr be put on the record regarding his current position on cannabis given his record as a proponent of the failed War on Drugs.”

Grissom said that if he had the chance to question Barr during the confirmation process, he’d point to the roughly $1.5 billion in legal cannabis sales in Colorado last year. “What that should tell anyone that’s a prosecutor is that $1.5 billion didn’t go to criminals,” he told Leafly. “My question would be, Do you plan on taking any actions that would roll back what Colorado has accomplished?”

“My follow-up question,” he added, “would be, Are you familiar with the Cole memo, and if you are, would you be willing to reinstate what the Cole memo stands for in light of the efforts that are presently being made in Congress concerning whether or not cannabis is going to remain as a Schedule I drug?”


FAQ: What We Know About Jeff Sessions’ DOJ Action Against Legal Cannabis

The Cole memo, a nonbinding Justice Department guidance document issued under the Obama administration, advised federal prosecutors not to interfere with state cannabis systems or businesses that complied with state law. Sessions revoked the Cole memo in January 2018.

“This is just one aspect of the whole push for criminal justice reform,” Grissom said of how Barr ultimately treats cannabis. “I’m optimistic and hopeful that he will adopt a position that is, at least, at a minimum, cannabis-neutral so we can see what’s happening with our new Congress around issues concerning cannabis.”

Until Barr is confirmed, the Justice Department will continue to be led by acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker.

Ben Adlin's Bio Image

Ben Adlin

Ben Adlin is a Seattle-based writer and editor who specializes in cannabis politics and law. He was a news editor for Leafly from 2015-2019. Follow him on Twitter: @badlin

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  • jason

    marlboro just invested over 2 BILLION Barr ain’t doing sh!t!

    • Jeffery Hays Black

      Thats in Canada.

    • BA5578

      Barr hasn’t even started his new job yet. He has to first be approved by the Senate.
      I agree with Mr. Grissom- hopefully Mr. Barr’s perspective has evolved with that of the American people (62% in favor of legalization).

  • champion

    Wars are all they care about.It’s not about the people or killing this planet.

  • Jeff Hudson

    Optimism is the word of the day.

  • Tony Velez

    disgusting that bush was the reason for drugs in america by having it imported in meanwhile jailing innocent citizens whose only vice was smoking pot , a two fold win for his push to jail anyone for this !!! IF anyone should be jailed is the bush family, biggest crime family in america, now this backwards thinking ignorant idiot is possibly going to be the next AG is another slap in the face to the american people shows the gov’t is & always been the problem !! hoping this possible present AG is not going to disrupt the med marijuana process to wean anyone off of opioids & have a healthier method of pain mgmt

    • BA5578

      “biggest crime family in America”.
      Nobody can hold a candle to the Clintons.
      Felony after felony. Free pass after free pass.

  • Agent Anderson

    this is why the usa as it is practiced today will collapse! bush is the international cia drug lord period! that any of these people think that drugs are anything but a establishment system of generating revenues is in itself a criminal act, look barr its your government that ships the drugs into our country from everywhere do your research stop playing like you care for we the people, all you care about is lifting them 100 dollar bills off us as pay , Jesus clean out the bush clinton obama nazi’s!

  • Doc Hunter

    If people are shocked by the violence happening in Paris and across EU over Gas/Climate Change, God help them if they (DOJ & DEMS) should try to reverse the decisions MADE BY THE PEOPLES VOTE or just IGNORE THEM. The UPRISING that would follow that decision would go down in History. Just the impact on Veterans who have been forced to replace their pain meds (Opioids) due to that Major Problem, I would not want to face..
    Not only are more and more uses being found for the plant and Hemp, it is keeping millions of folks MELLOW and talking about it and voting on it rather than the LAST PLACE you want them, PISSED OFF, in PAIN and IN THE STREETS!
    I would ask the Lord to give those in Gov Sanity and Logic going forward for the good of this country.
    Old Vet

  • Jeffery Hays Black

    Trump said he is open to legalization for the states. I am not worried about a THC crack down. The shit that kills…yeah he’s hard ass on that, and more power to him for that since my son is a recovering addict and many of his friends are gone.

  • Anton LeMisroi

    I can see him amping up convictions in states that haven’t made it illegal, but just as Trump didn’t let Sessions go after pot – which is probably why Sessions was so useless as AG – I doubt Trump is going to let Barr attack weed.

  • David Shaw Jr

    The marijuana genie isn’t going back into the bottle.

  • SAINT Brand Cannabis

    I hope is means prosecution of opiate murderers…

    Det. Menniti and at least three other PBPD Officers let MCCAULEY walk away from a opiate murder crime scene. Being wholly ignorant of the Governor’s new opiate law; PBPD processed Nia’s car to bring DUI charges against her. Indeed, she was driving under the influence of alcohol and an opiate – for which she paid with her life. When the PBPD finally realized just how badly they had “screwed the pooch”; that is when their obstruction of justice began, and eventually spread to the PBSO and FDLE. This accessory after the fact to 1st Degree Capital Murder continues to this day; and is punishable by up to 15 years in Federal Prison.

    Then Menniti soft-peddles a “first-aid” investigation; and his command supervision signs off on it. We as a family were screaming at them that Nia’s death must be treated as a homicide; the PBPD ignored us. We petitioned the PBC Court with a writ of mandamus to move the investigation to PBSO; both PBPD and the PBSO lawyered up to prevent it. We asked the FDLE to investigate both Nia’s homicide and the PBPD obstruction of justice; they lied to the family and finally told us not to call them anymore. The PBSO as of Dec. 6th, 2018 have also refused to open a homicide investigation.