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Sessions reefer madness

Jeff Sessions is out. What does that mean for marijuana policy?


WASHINGTON (CIRCA) - Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions didn't veer from vocalizing his staunch opposition to marijuana -- both medical and recreational -- throughout his decades-long career as a public servant.

His departure from the country's top law enforcement position on Wednesday spurred a flurry of activity within the cannabis industry. Marijuana advocates hoping for a green wave immediately rejoiced, while cannabis stocks on Wall Street surged.

But is all of this celebration justified?

Jonathan Blanks, a research associate at the Cato Institute's Project on Criminal Justice, cautiously says yes.

"Sessions had such a unique priority with marijuana that stands out among basically anyone in the political area."
Jonathan Blanks, research associate, Cato Institute Project on Criminal Justice

Blanks recognizes that President Donald Trump could select a criminal justice hardliner. But with names such as former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., surfacing as possible replacements, he says it's hard to imagine the job going to "someone who's going to prioritize marijuana enforcement as much as Sessions did."

During his nearly two-year tenure as attorney general, Sessions took steps to obstruct marijuana reform. Earlier this year, he rescinded an Obama-era policy that eased enforcement of federal marijuana laws in states that had legalized the drug. On paper, this meant that U.S. attorneys could prosecute law-abiding state marijuana operators at their discretion, opening the door for possible prosecution. Sessions later clarified that federal law enforcement lacks the resources to take on "routine cases."

"[Federal prosecutors] haven't been working small marijuana cases before [and] they are not going to be working them now," he said at a Georgetown Law event.

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Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker has expressed his opposition to marijuana in the past, most notably, during his stint for Iowa senator in 2014. But, unlike Sessions, Whitaker said he was open to cannabis-related products for medicinal purposes during a primary debate.

At the same time, however, Whitaker also struggled to define the federal government's role in states that already legalized cannabis.

"And I am gravely concerned that we are now going to go back and forth between who is in the White House and what their drug enforcement policy is," Whitaker said in 2014.

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Experts say they don't expect the acting attorney general to focus on marijuana policy in the interim. All eyes will be on special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation and immigration.

Looking forward, Blanks says it's possible that President Trump may use marijuana sentencing reform as a bargaining chip in 2019 when Democrats take over the House of Representatives.

"The criminal justice reform is an easy 'in' for that, and so he may decide he wants to prioritize marijuana in a liberal way," Blanks continued. "I'm not [necessarily] expecting it, but it is an option for him because a lot of times he does seem to do things that he may not particularly care about, like pardons, but he understands they're popular, so he'll go there."

He continued, "Now that [Sessions is] no longer in the Senate and he's not in the [DOJ], that's one less obstacle, so I can see with the new Congress maybe something moving forward on sentencing reform."

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