Congress Ties Jeff Sessions' Hands on Medical Marijuana

At least for now, the DOJ is likely to be barred from going after pot growers, sellers and users in states where medical weed's legal

Twenty-nine states and Washington, D.C., have legalized medical marijuana. Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is the bogey man to many in the nation's burgeoning marijuana industry. Many pot entrepreneurs fear that the nation's top law enforcement officer – who once said "good people don't smoke pot" – will use the full force of the federal government to raid their businesses, even though the majority of U.S. voters support legal or recreational marijuana.

But this week, medicinal marijuana business owners and patients are breathing a sigh of relief: The compromise bill to fund the government through September includes an extension of a provision that keeps Sessions' hands tied by explicitly barring the Department of Justice from using its resources to go after marijuana growers, sellers and users in the more than two dozen states, plus D.C., that have legalized medical marijuana – though, inexplicably, North Dakota and Indiana were left out (possibly because of a clerical error).

"Sessions is a tremendous concern. On the other hand, I don't think the Trump administration is going to want to see him busting into states that have thoughtfully legalized marijuana and the larger number of states that have legalized medical marijuana," Democratic Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon tells Rolling Stone. "I think it would cost Trump dearly amongst his support group if Sessions were to carry out that mission."

Many Republicans oppose the provision, like Republican Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland – one of the most vocal opponents of marijuana in Congress. He was able to singlehandedly spearhead the GOP effort to block D.C. from setting up a regulatory regime for recreational marijuana after residents overwhelmingly voted to legalize weed.

"I oppose [the provision], because marijuana is illegal under federal law," Harris tells Rolling Stone before urging Sessions to prosecute marijuana growers and users. "He should enforce federal law," he says.

Marijuana advocates are still holding their breath on what Sessions will do, noting he seems to be following the playbook of anti-pot advocates. Back in February, the far-right think tank the Heritage Foundation, which played an outsized role in helping Trump staff his administration, released a paper called "How Trump's DOJ Can Start Enforcing Federal Marijuana Law." It laid out an 11-point strategy for combatting legal marijuana. Sessions has so far followed the first four bullet points in the action plan – for instance, coordinating with local officials and reasserting America's War-on-Drugs position on the world stage – according to Justin Strekal of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

"We're just trying to be vigilant and make sure that we're informing our supporters and elected officials ... [that] we don't have protections and it's imperative that Congress take action,'" Strekal tells Rolling Stone.

The quiet opposition from the DOJ makes some proponents nervous since they're likely going to have to refight this battle on medical marijuana in the fall – but they're still hoping to expand their efforts. The next such battle will focus on the eight states, plus D.C., that have legalized marijuana for recreational use. In those areas, Sessions and the DEA still have the power to arrest, prosecute and lock up people who are a part of the blossoming recreational marijuana culture.

"It's a very regulated industry at this point, so for the federal government to come in – what are they going to do? Arrest everybody?" Rep. DeFazio says. "I don't know what percent of the people in Oregon or California are using recreational marijuana, but I would imagine between the [eight states and the District of Columbia], there are many millions, maybe tens of millions, of recreational users. ... What, are you going to arrest 10 million people?"

"We feel strongly about supporting our states and our constituents against federal intrusion. And remember, these are the 'states' rights' guys here – the Republicans are the 'states' rights' guys. Well then, why do they care that in Oregon you can have recreational marijuana? And why is it offensive to someone from Alabama?" DeFazio asks.

In 2015, an amendment was offered to extend the same protection from federal intrusion to people in states where recreational marijuana is legal, but it narrowly failed by a vote of 206 to 222. But the world of legal cannabis has drastically changed in just two years. Back then, only four states and D.C. had legalized recreational weed. Now, purple states like Nevada and Maine have been added to the list, along with Massachusetts, plus California's nearly 40 million residents. That's why the next battle in Congress is to limit the DEA's ability to bust up marijuana operations in states that allow recreational toking.

"We do feel we have the votes in the House when we have a process that allows us to bring that amendment forward," Democratic Rep. Jared Polis of Colorado says. "So we have the protections for medical marijuana and a funding restriction. We hope to get those for states that have legal, regulated marijuana at the first opportunity."

Polis wasn't able to offer his amendment in this round of the fight, because the government funding bill is merely a continuing resolution that basically keeps last year's spending levels and policies in place. Because party leaders negotiated the bill largely in secret, without too much input from the rank-and-file, no amendments are allowed on the package in order to keep controversial issues, like recreational weed, out of the bill. But this fall, when the full appropriations process is under way, marijuana proponents are itching to offer their bill on recreational weed, called the McClintock-Polis Amendment.

"We were very close last time, and we've been focused on a number of representatives from states where it wasn't legal before and now it's legal, so now their constituents want them to act," Polis says.

Watch the state-by-state guide to legal pot.