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Sessions leaves door open to reviving federal war on pot

 (Los Angeles Times)
(Los Angeles Times)

If marijuana users were looking for reassurance that the incoming Trump administration is not going to turn back the clock on pot legalization, they didn’t get it.

Trump’s pick for attorney general, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, was noncommittal when asked if the federal government would continue to take a hands-off approach to enforcement of marijuana laws in states where the drug is legal. Pot is now permitted for medical use in the majority of the states, and voters in eight states, including California, have approved laws allowing the sale of cannabis for recreational use.

“I won't commit to never enforcing federal law,” Sessions said at his confirmation hearing Tuesday. “But absolutely it's a problem of resources for the federal government.” He noted that his predecessors have laid out policies that enable states to pursue legalization unfettered. But then he pointed out that those policies are out of sync with federal law.

“One obvious concern is that Congress has made the possession of marijuana in every state and distribution of it an illegal act,” he said. “If that's something that is not desired any longer, Congress should pass a law to change [it]. ... It is not so much the attorney general's job to decide what laws to enforce. We should do our job and enforce laws effectively as we are able.”

The remarks leave the door open for Sessions, who has been an unabashed opponent of marijuana use, to authorize resumption of raids on marijuana growing operations and dispensaries that many who are engaged in the business had hoped would be history. But Sessions was deliberately noncommittal. Such law enforcement actions would likely prove deeply unpopular in the states that permit marijuana use, and Trump has signaled that he has no desire to reignite this particular part of the drug war.

Bill Piper, a lobbyist for the pro-legalization Drug Policy Alliance, declared on Twitter that the comments by Sessions were “wishy washy” at best.

Marijuana advocates are now likely to turn their focus to Trump, trying to pressure him to continue the Obama administration’s policy of permitting states to pursue their own path on pot. Though marijuana remained classified as one of the most dangerous narcotics throughout most of the Obama administration, the Justice Department opted years ago to give states the freedom to continue their experiment with legalization.

Should Sessions opt to change course, it could put him in a political pickle. The Alabama Republican is among the most deeply conservative politicians in Congress, and a longtime crusader for state’s rights. Using federal law enforcement agents to pressure the states to change course on their drug policies risks coming off as heavy-handed, and would likely put Sessions at odds with several of his GOP colleagues who argue the states should be free to pursue their own policies regarding cannabis use.

Staff writer Del Quentin Wilber contributed to this report.

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