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What We Know About Attorney General Jeff Sessions And Legal Cannabis

Editor's Note: On February 8, 2017, Jeff Sessions was confirmed as the Attorney General of the United States. We originally ran this piece on January 11, during his confirmation hearings. 

Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions has cleared the air about his position on the Ku Klux Klan, but his stance on cannabis is murkier than ever. Yesterday, Sessions - who is President-elect Donald Trump's pick for attorney general - faced tough questions at his Senate Confirmation Hearing. 

The Alabama senator is no stranger to these hearings. In 1986, he was grilled by the Senate Judiciary Committee when President Ronald Reagan nominated him as federal district judge for Alabama. During the proceedings, senators dug up a disturbing quote in which Sessions said he thought the Ku Klux Klan "were OK until I found out they smoked pot."

Sessions apologized for making that remark. But saying sorry wasn't enough to win over the committee. His nomination was rejected in 1986.

So it's no surprise that Sessions went on the offensive yesterday's Senate hearing by addressing those allegations of racism in his opening remarks.

"Let me address another issue straight on," he said. "I was accused in 1986 of failing to protect the voting rights of African Americans...and of condemning civil rights organizations and advocates, and even harboring...sympathies for the KKK. These are false charges...I abhor the Klan and what it represents in its hateful ideology."

His stance on the KKK is now clear - even if many still choose not to believe him - but Sessions wasn't as forthcoming about his position on marijuana. And that's a huge problem for the millions of Americans living in states that have legalized medical and/or recreational cannabis use.

Right now, medical marijuana is legal in 29 states and recreational cannabis has been legalized in eight states, plus Washington, D.C. But the federal government still prohibits medicinal and recreational use. Which means all of those jurisdictions are operating in a gray area. The only thing protecting them from DEA raids are Obama Administration guidelines instructing the Department of Justice not to go after state-legalized marijuana industries.

But those guidelines aren't legally binding. So members of those industries - including growers, retailers and even medical marijuana patients - are vulnerable to prosecution if the next attorney general decides to enforce federal laws.

Sessions Won't Rule Out Raiding Legal States 

Raiding Legal States

Senator Sessions seems like the sort of attorney general who would go after the legal states. He's been an outspoken opponent of marijuana for years. But he also supports the rights of states to decide their own laws on certain issues.

Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy (D) asked Sessions about those conflicting views during yesterday's hearing,.

"You have long been a champion of state's rights," Leahy said. "But states have also voted on the issue of marijuana legalization. I believe your own state Alabama permits the use of a derivative of marijuana known as CBD oil. Legal in Alabama, illegal under federal law. If you are confirmed...would you use our federal resources to investigate and prosecute sick people who are using marijuana in accordance with their state laws even though it might violate federal law?"

Sessions dodged the issue, refusing to say whether or not he would spend the Department of Justice's limited resources to go after legal states.

"I won't commit to never enforcing federal law, Senator Leahy. But absolutely it's a problem of resources for the federal government."

Leahy followed up by asking Sessions if he agreed with the Obama Administrations guidelines for legal states. 

"I think some of them are truly valuable in evaluating cases," Sessions said. "But fundamentally, the criticism that I thought was legitimate is that they may not have been followed. And using good judgment about how to handle these cases will be a responsibility of mine. And I know it won't be an easy decision. But I will try to do my duty in a just way."

Unfortunately, he didn't specify what parts of the Obama Administration's guidelines were valuable. So there's no telling if he plans to tweak the DOJ's current approach to legal states or scrap it entirely.

Congress has power to change laws on cannabis

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But Sessions was clear on one thing. If the federal government doesn't want to enforce cannabis prohibition, then it's up to Congress - not the DOJ - to change federal law.

"[T]he United States Congress has made the possession of marijuana in every state -- and distribution of it -- an illegal act," he said during the hearing. "If that's something that's not desired any longer, Congress should pass a law to change the rule. It's not so much the attorney general's job to decide what laws ought to be enforced. We should do our jobs to enforce laws as effectively as we are able."

That's one area in which Sessions has an unlikely ally: Paul Armentano, Deputy Director of NORML -- the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Last September, Armentano told Civilized, "When Congress passes a bad law or an inappropriate law, ultimately it’s Congress whose responsibility to fix those laws."

So the prohibitionist and the legalization activist agree on that much at least. Hopefully the two camps will find more common ground in the uncertain years ahead.

Banner image: 12/17/2016: Alabama Senator and incoming US Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks to the crowd with US President-elect Donald J. Trump at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. (Brandon McPherson /


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