On January 10, 2017, Alabama GOP Sen. Jeff Sessions began confirmation hearings with the Senate Judiciary Committee for his potential role as Attorney General in the upcoming Trump administration. During these hearings he was asked questions that shed light on possible differences between the Trump administration Department of Justice’s stance on marijuana as compared to the Obama administration.
In response to a question about federalism as it relates to marijuana laws from Sen. Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, Sessions stated:
“One obvious concern is that Congress has made the possession of marijuana in every state an illegal act. If that is not desired any longer, Congress should pass a law to change it. It’s not the attorney general’s job to decide which laws to enforce. We should enforce the laws as effectively as we are able.”
Additionally, in response to a question from Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, Sessions said he “won’t commit to never enforcing federal law.”
These statements indicate, at the least, a change in ideas about enforcement of marijuana laws. Although there has been no legal action at the federal level to legalize marijuana, there have been several memoranda urging U.S. Attorneys to avoid prosecuting marijuana-related crimes. Additionally, in 2014, Congress passed a spending bill that prohibited the Department of Justice from using federal funding to prosecute marijuana activity that is legal under state law.
In spite of the sterner tone that Sessions took during the hearings, leading voices in the legalization community do not see cause for alarm. In response to Sessions’ comments during the hearing, the Marijuana Policy Project issued a statement in which its Director of Federal Policies, Robert Capecchi, said that MPP is “cautiously optimistic” about the incoming administration’s stance on marijuana. The director also said: “ It is notable that Sen. Sessions chose not to commit to vigorously enforcing federal prohibition laws in states that have reformed their marijuana laws. He also recognized that enforcing federal marijuana laws would be dependent upon the availability of resources, the scarcity of which poses a problem. He was given the opportunity to take an extreme prohibitionist approach and he passed on it.”