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Sorry, Jeff Sessions – Governors Are Moving Ahead with Pot

At their annual meeting, pro-pot governors say the AG isn’t stopping them from advancing plans for medical and recreational legalization

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy

Steve Helber/AP/REX Shutterstock, Julio Cortez/AP/REX Shutterstock

Over the past few days, most of the nation’s governors descended on Washington for their annual meeting with administration officials and the president. As the governors mingled about and chatted in between sessions, many of them were exchanging ideas and best practices on how to roll out a successful regulatory regime on marijuana. But hanging over their talks was the specter of Attorney General Jeff Sessions who would like to clamp down on the nation’s burgeoning, though disparate, marijuana industry.

Some Democratic governors say they were denied a private meeting with Sessions to discuss his anti-marijuana stance. And besides attending the formal Governors’ Ball on Sunday night, the attorney general only made one appearance to the group, at a White House briefing on opioids. Some say they’re frustrated they couldn’t pick his brain on his controversial move to rescind an Obama-era memo that directed the nation’s top prosecutors to prioritize other offenses over marijuana in states where it’s legal.

“I tried, but I couldn’t get called on,” Gov. John Hickenlooper (D-CO) tells Rolling Stone. “He only took about six questions. There were probably 40 governors in the room.”

Even though there’s fear that Sessions wants to go after legal marijuana business owners, many states are moving ahead with efforts to either launch a new medicinal marijuana industry, expand an existing one or to legalize weed for recreational purposes. And governors say so far Sessions’ opposition hasn’t had an impact on the ground.

“It has not impacted us and we believe it will not, although that doesn’t mean we’re not paying attention,” Gov. Phil Murphy (D-NJ) tells Rolling Stone.

Murphy, who was elected last year, campaigned aggressively on marijuana legalization. For him, it’s a criminal-justice issue because his state has the largest racial disparity in its prison population of any state in the nation, and many of those convicts are serving terms for nonviolent drug offenses. While he’s received some pushback from his legislature on his plan to legalize pot, he’s moving ahead on expanding medicinal marijuana because currently there are only five dispensaries in a state with nine million people.

“We’re proceeding apace, again, beginning to make sure we get the medical piece right because it’s life or death,” Murphy says. “And then we will deliberately and steadily get to the recreational side.”

The nation’s other newly seated governor, Ralph Northam (D-VA), also campaigned on marijuana. He faces more headwinds from Republicans who control his state’s House of Delegates, but he’s still calling for marijuana decriminalization. As a physician, Northam is also vocal about the medicinal benefits of weed, though he says more research is needed. For that he’s calling on Congress to reclassify pot, since it’s currently listed as a Schedule I narcotic, making it extremely difficult to study in any official capacity. 

“I think that it would be great if at the federal level they could change the schedule of marijuana so that we can get more data on it – do more research,” Northam tells Rolling Stone. “I remind people all the time that probably over 100 medicines that we use routinely in health care come from plants, so let’s be a little bit more open minded and look at potential uses for medicinal marijuana.”

Many other states are also expanding their medical marijuana operations. Hawaii just authorized medical marijuana dispensaries that will soon be on each of its eight islands. And even though they’re in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, they’re looking over their shoulders to see what Sessions is up to.

“We obviously are concerned about that, and what action he’ll be taking,” Gov. David Ige (D-HA) tells Rolling Stone.

Rhode Island, which legalized medical use in 2006, currently only has three marijuana dispensaries in the entire state, and Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo has a proposal in front of her legislature to double or triple that number. But she says it’s all more complicated because of opposition from Sessions and because the federal prohibition on weed has severely limited the amount of research on the plant.

“That is the challenge,” Raimondo tells Rolling Stone. “Frankly that is the challenge for states thinking about legalizing recreational marijuana.”

In June, Oklahoma voters – which tend to skew ultra-conservative – will decide whether they want to allow medicinal marijuana, and that has the governor’s office watching Sessions.

“It’s something that we’re weighing with our attorney general to see what the U.S. attorney general’s doing too,” Gov. Mary Fallin (R-OK) tells Rolling Stone. “But we do think that if it’s implemented there are some guidelines, as far as licensing and how it is regulated in the state of Oklahoma, that will have to be addressed by our legislature.”

While Sessions is seen as the boogie man by many marijuana-advocates, he has his defenders. He’s come under fire for rescinding former Attorney General Eric Holder’s memo that sought to protect legal marijuana businesses, but Gov. Gary Herbert (R-UT) says Holder is the one who deserves the blame for not working with Congress on a federal resolution.

“They turned a blind eye to it. They just let states do it in open violation of the federal law. That’s not how we do things in this country. I think that’s bad process. It’s bad form and sends a bad message,” Herbert tells Rolling Stone.

This fall, Utah voters will get to weigh in on whether they want to expand the states extremely limited medical marijuana industry. In the meantime Herbert is also calling on lawmakers on Capitol Hill to reschedule marijuana now so his voters can have access to better data on its potential health benefits and/or harms. He thinks it should be treated more like the prescriptions in your cabinet than the beers in your fridge.

“It ought to be a controlled substance just like anything else. It ought to be approved by the FDA. It ought to be in fact prescribed by a doctor and administered by a pharmacist,” Herbert continues. “We probably ought not to have self-medication. The physiology of different people would require probably different quantities of the medicine, and I just think that’s prudent.”

While the movement on medical marijuana is steadily picking up steam in red and blue states alike, the recreational effort is going more slowly but some governors say there’s starting to be an air of certainty that eventually marijuana will be viewed as the same as alcohol in most every state.

Back in 2011, Gov. Dan Malloy (D-CT) moved to decriminalize marijuana and set up a medicinal marijuana regime. While he hasn’t come down one way or another on recreational marijuana, he says it’s just a matter of time before it happens in Connecticut because efforts to legalize weed are sweeping the entire northeast corridor.

“As Canada moves in that direction, as Massachusetts and Vermont, it’s going to be a neighborhood thing, and I understand that,” Malloy tells Rolling Stone. While he remains lukewarm on recreational marijuana, he did pen a blunt letter to Sessions on it.

“I told him to stop messing around with marijuana, because it really isn’t important,” Malloy says. “I have not taken the opportunity to endorse marijuana, but that’s very different than spending resources trying to combat marijuana use. And, quite frankly, if you’re going to be serious about opioids, you can’t be screwing around with marijuana.”

While many governors are now rushing out new marijuana regulations, they’re still keeping one eye on Jeff Sessions. Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA) says during this visit he was rebuffed when he asked for a private meeting with the attorney general to discuss his state’s recreational marijuana marketplace, but he says his offer for Sessions to come out west and tour his state’s pot businesses still stands.

“It’s a shame that he has a closed mind, and he’s much more attentive to his old ideology than to the new facts,” Inslee tells Rolling Stone. “The fears that he might have had 30 years ago have not been realized, and we wish he would just open his eyes to the reality of the situation. If he did, I think he would no longer try to fight an old battle that the community and the nation is moving very rapidly forward on.”   

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