By Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno
Jeff Sessions hates marijuana. He’s made that plain in multiple colorful quotes, from stating that “good people don’t smoke marijuana” to arguing that “we need grown-ups in charge in Washington to say marijuana is … in fact a very real danger.” But he may also turn out to be the best thing that’s happened to the marijuana reform movement in Washington.
For years, marijuana reform has moved at a snail’s pace in Washington. Even as more and more states — now 29 — legalized medical marijuana and increasing numbers legalized adult use of marijuana, Congress held back. Occasional efforts to remove marijuana from the schedule of controlled substances have been rejected. And advocates have had to fight every year to make sure that Congress included an amendment to its appropriations bills, to protect states that legalized medical marijuana from federal interference.
In August 2013, on the heels of the success of marijuana legalization in Washington and Colorado, reformers achieved a federal coup when Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole issued guidance to prosecutors limiting the situations in which they could enforce federal criminal laws on marijuana in states that had legalized it. That memo created space for other states to proceed with legalization, and for businesses to begin operating, with some comfort that people relying on state law would not be prosecuted under federal law so long as their activities fell outside certain federal priorities.
But in January, Sessions rescinded the Cole memo. Perhaps he thought that the decision would chill further reform or spread fear among the industry.
Instead, his move seems to have galvanized policymakers. That same month, Vermont announced that it had legalized marijuana. Cities like Albuquerque, Savannah, Ga., and Baton Rouge are decriminalizing it. And now, we’re seeing a sea change in Washington, in both parties.
In response to Sessions’ decision, Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican from Colorado, threatened to block all Justice Department nominees. Eventually, he said he extracted from Trump a commitment that the Justice Department would not interfere with legal marijuana in Colorado, and that Trump would support legislation to protect states that had legalized medical and adult use marijuana.