In Sessions’ Pot Fight, Look to Congress

Republican U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has rescinded former President Barack Obama’s memo allowing states who’ve legalized marijuana use in any capacity to regulate themselves without concern about federal interference since the federal government still prohibits marijuana use.

But what that means in practice remains to be seen, former Rep. Jeff Irwin says. Irwin, now the policy director for the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana like Alcohol, explained the more important announcement will be what Congress will or will not do with the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment, which prohibits the U.S. Justice Department from using federal tax dollars to go after states that have legalized marijuana.

The memo being rescinded per Sessions, the Cole memo, gave states guidance on the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment and what constituted compliance with state medical marijuana laws, Irwin explained.

Irwin said Sessions’ opposition to “sensible cannabis law reform” had been well-established and “it’s not surprising to see (him) rattling his sabers.”

Michigan voters overwhelmingly supported the Medical Marihuana Act in 2008, so if Congress doesn’t continue the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment, that is when caregivers and patients should be more concerned.

As such, “I would encourage folks to call their federal officials and tell them the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment is important” and should be kept in the next budget, Irwin said of what Sessions’ announcement could mean for folks in Michigan.

Voters have until January 19 to do that, as the U.S. Senate approved a short-term spending measure to keep the government open through then right before Christmas.

Sessions is already facing backlash on his announcement, though, especially from Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, where recreational use of marijuana is legal. Gardner said Sessions and his Justice Department had “trampled on the will of the voters” in Colorado and other states.

Indeed, the Obama-era memos had effectively made marijuana use a states’ rights issue so long as they didn’t threaten other federal policies like preventing distribution to minors or cartels. Sessions has himself claimed to support states’ rights, but since being appointed U.S. attorney general, has gone back on those matters where politically expedient.

Sessions has, in this marijuana ordeal, applied the same flip-flop logic as he did when it came to civil asset forfeiture (the process by which police can confiscate property they suspect is tied to drug crimes, with the proceeds from the sale of that property going back to police agencies or prosecutors who initiated the forfeiture). The tactic was extremely popular back during the “drug war” of the 1980s, which has retroactively been viewed as not only a failure, but a way to further oppress people of color and marginalized communities who have since disproportionately accounted for incarcerated individuals.

Asked why Sessions would make such an announcement if Congress has maintained the amendment to this point, Irwin said there are any number of reasons, but it especially makes sense if Sessions has all the “prohibitionists” – people who don’t financially benefit from legalized marijuana – whispering his ears, “That’s an opportunity for him to live out his prohibitionist fantasies,” Irwin said.

But Irwin is not yet fretting, he reiterated.

“Even though the announcement is frustrating … Until Congress backs up Jeff Sessions and the Trump administration with a change to the federal budget, this is going to be more saber rattling,” he said.

Irwin’s coalition seeking to regulate marijuana like alcohol (by legalizing and taxing it, with some of those funds being put toward state revenues), turned in a sufficient number of signatures prior to the New Year in hopes of getting the proposal on the 2018 general election ballot, and the secretary of state is still in the process of reviewing them, Irwin said.

Once the signatures are approved, the state Legislature will have the opportunity to enact the proposal as law, but Irwin said he is not yet counting on that.

Rather, “It looks like the citizens of Michigan will have an opportunity to end this granddaddy of all failed programs,” Irwin said, referring to the immense amount of government waste, fraud and abuse that has occurred with the so-called “War on Drugs” of the 1980s.

Irwin also said some publicly released polls that the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News have reported on tend to show voter support of legalizing marijuana trending around 58 or 59 percent, with an increase of two or three percent per year.

Danielle Emerson

Danielle Emerson