Senators on both sides of the aisle pressed their colleague Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama) on Tuesday to flesh out his views on state-level marijuana laws, but president-elect Donald Trump's pick to be the next attorney general downplayed his history of being a hardline drug warrior.
Instead, we got vague and unconvincing answers about how Sessions views the relationship between the states and the federal government.
"I think 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," Sessions said when questioned by U.S. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah). "If that's something that's not desired any longer, Congress should pass a law to change the rule. It is not much the attorney general's job to decide what laws to enforce. We should do our job and enforce laws effectively as we are able."
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.
In the past, Sessions has encouraged the federal government to take a more activist approach to enforcing marijuana prohibition. In an April hearing about recreational marijuana laws in the states, Sessions observed that "good people don't smoke marijuana" and longed for the days when the federal government was more aggressive in going after drug dealers and users.
If Sessions brings that approach to the executive branch, his decisions on marijuana policy could have huge implications for individuals and businesses in states where forms of marijuana have been legalized and could change the landscape for further state-level marijuana policy changes in coming years.
As Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) pointed out during Tuesday's confirmation hearing, even Sessions' home state of Alabama has legalized a marijuana derivative known as cannabidiol oil, or CBD oil, for the treatment of some medical conditions. Leahy asked whether Sessions, as attorney general, would allow such laws to stand.
"I won't commit to never enforcing federal law," Session said. "But absolutely it's a problem of resources for the federal government."
Again, this is not an informative answer.
"We are no closer to clarity in regards to Sessions' plans for how to treat state marijuana laws than we were yesterday," said Erik Altieri, executive director for NORML, which lobbies for marijuana reform at the state and federal level. "If Sessions wants to be attorney general for all Americans, he must bring his views in line with the majority of the population and support allowing states to set their own marijuana policies without fear of federal intervention."
Sean Spicer, Trump's spokesman, was asked about Sessions' views on marijuana legalization during a Tuesday appearence on Fox News, but offered more vaguries.
Some have pointed to this exchange as an indication Sessions won't go after state-legal cannabis. That's not what it says. It's a nonanswer. pic.twitter.com/hKHDg7FeqN
— Ben Adlin (@badlin) January 10, 2017
During the Obama administration, eight states legalized recreational marijuana and dozens of state-level medical marijuana laws were passed. Marijuana remains completely illegal at the federal level. It is included on the federal Schedule I list, a set of drugs considered by the Drug Enforcement Administration to have "no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse," including heroin, LSD, and ecstasy.
More states are likely to approve marijuana for recreational and medicinal use in the coming years, but the federal government would have the power to crack down on those reforms, if the Justice Department wanted to do so.
That's why we need to hear more specifics from Sessions about how he would approach the question of marijuana federalism. Lee let his colleague off the hook too easily on Tuesday—hopefully other members of the Senate will force Sessions to revisit the issue when the confirmation hearing resumes on Wednesday.