Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein made it very clear last Tuesday that he doesn’t like marijuana use, medical or otherwise. Speaking to the Senate and House Appropriations committees during a hearing regarding the Justice Department’s budgeting, marijuana was eventually going to surface in questioning. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R), of Alaska, a state that has legalized both recreational and medical marijuana, opened the subject. Inquiring about the tensions between a federal government that views the plant as illegal and the states that have legalized in some form, adding, “I’m concerned and speaking for a lot of people in my state who are worried.”
Rosenstein responded by agreeing that those tensions exist, and that the Justice Department hopes intends to reinforce the illegality of the plant. “We do have a conflict between federal law and the law in some states,” he noted. “It’s a difficult issue for parents like me, who have to provide guidance to our kids… I’ve talked to Chuck Rosenberg, the administrator of the DEA and we follow the law and the science. And from a legal and scientific perspective, marijuana is an unlawful drug. It’s properly scheduled under Schedule I. And therefore we have this conflict.”
For those who may not recognize DEA Admin. Chuck Rosenberg , he has previously called medical cannabis “a joke,” and was pressured to resign from office in 2015 due to what many view as controversial views on the medical efficacy of the plant. It is unsurprising in that Rosenstein included in his mention of Rosenberg the assertion that cannabis doesn’t have scientific backing, a view that AG Sessions shares despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Responding to further questioning about the Justice Department’s priorities on cannabis, Rosenstein held firm: “…I can assure you that is going to be a high priority for me as the U.S. Attorneys come on board to talk about how to deal with that challenge in the states that have legalized or decriminalized marijuana, whether it be for recreational or medical use,” continuing to assert that it is the job of the Department of Justice to enforce the law. “It’s illegal, and that is the federal policy with regards to marijuana.”
This view aligns with a letter recently publicized, sent by AG Sessions to the Republican and Democratic leadership in both the Senate and House. In this letter, Sessions beseeched lawmakers not to renew the Rohrbacher-Farr amendment, which prevents the Justice Department from using federal funding to enforce federal cannabis laws in states that have passed legalization.
Part of the questioning of Deputy AG Rosenstein focused on another federal policy that protects states’ rights to govern cannabis independently, the Cole Memo. Issued in 2013 by then-Attorney General James M. Cole, the Cole Memo is a guideline for federal, state, and law enforcement that provides a framework for states that have legalized cannabis to follow. Provided that states comply with the guidelines, the federal government won’t interfere.
AG Sessions has set up a task force to review existing cannabis legislation, including the Cole Memo, and Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Washington State) asked for an update on whether it would be amended or rescinded entirely. Rosenstein stated, “Cole made an effort to examine the issue and find a way forward for the department where we could continue with our obligation to enforce federal law and minimize the intrusion on states that were attempting to follow a different path.” He added, “for the moment the Cole Memo remains our policy. There may be an opportunity to review it in the future, but at the moment I’m not aware of any proposal to change it. But I think we’re all going to have to deal with it in the future.”
So, while the Department of Justice is clearly looking for ways to weaken or dismantle federal policy that prevents them from prosecuting cannabis-related offenses in states that have legalized, they still haven’t found a way to break through, yet. But they clearly view cannabis, medical or recreational, as illegal, and are avidly searching for ways to enforce that view.