Republicans in Colorado, where recreational marijuana use has been legal since 2012, weren’t prepared to put up with Attorney General Jeff Sessions today. Even if they were, their constituents wouldn’t stand for it.
After news spread Thursday that Sessions was prepared to rescind an Obama-era policy, known as the Cole Memo, that helped pave the way for recreational marijuana in eight states—most recently, California, Massachusetts, Maine and Nevada—as well as the proliferation of legalized medical marijuana, Colorado Republicans quickly began calling President Trump’s attorney general out, with one US senator even threatening retaliation
As long as states made an effort to prevent legal weed from crossing their borders into states that don’t allow it, the Cole Memo stated, the DOJ would not send federal stormtroopers in to arrest individuals or harass marijuana dispensaries that are complying with state adult-use laws. This potentially includes states that have only legalized marijuana for medical use, although additional provisions make enforcements in non-recreational states less likely.
In an election year, a decision to ramp up federal enforcement against pot is, objectively, a terrible fucking idea. It’s 2018. Ending the prohibition on marijuana is incredibly popular. Two-thirds of Americans support legalizing it for recreational purposes. As a political issue, weed has gone the way of marriage equality—it is a dead issue, and potentially, a third rail for Republicans candidates in the fall.
In other words, this is not the hill the GOP wants to die on.
In a statement to Gizmodo, Rep. Mike Coffman, a Republican who recently bumped heads with the administration over its plans to kill net neutrality, did not mince words (emphasis ours):
“Attorney General Sessions needs to read the Commerce Clause found in Article 1, Section 8 , Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution that limits the power of the federal government to regulate interstate and not intrastate commerce. The decision that was made to legalize marijuana in Colorado was made by the voters of Colorado and only applies within the boundaries of our state. Colorado had every right to legalize marijuana, and I will do everything I can to protect that right against the power of an overreaching federal government.”
Coffman isn’t the only Republican lawmaker from Colorado willing to “do everything” to put Sessions in his place. Colorado junior Sen. Cory Gardner issued an even more pointed threat at the Justice Department itself via Twitter:
“This reported action directly contradicts what Attorney General Sessions told me prior to his confirmation,” he wrote. “With no prior notice to Congress, the Justice Department has trampled on the will of the voters in CO and other states.”
Added Gardner: “I am prepared to take all steps necessary, including holding DOJ nominees, until the Attorney General lives up to the commitment he made to me prior to his confirmation.”
During his confirmation hearing, Sessions assured Gardner that deploying federal law enforcement to harass marijuana users in legalized states would not be a priority of the Trump administration. “Apparently, it’s not just a focus, it’s a primary initiative of the new year,” Gardner told Yahoo News.
In remarks to reporters, Republican Congressman Scott Tipton sounded about as equally pissed:
“The announcement by the Department of Justice is a drastic departure from the Attorney General’s previous commitment to Senator Cory Gardner during the confirmation process that he would uphold the Obama Administration’s treatment of marijuana enforcement and President Trump’s comments that he would leave it to the states.
“Furthermore it creates even greater confusion and uncertainty by leaving enforcement decisions up to federal prosecutors. The Department of Justice should provide guidance on enforcement of marijuana for states that have voted to legalize it. The people of Colorado voted to legalize marijuana in the state, and I am committed to defending the will of Coloradans.”
On the campaign trail, President Trump consistently told voters marijuana legalization was a states’ rights issue. During a February 2016 interview with former Fox News host and creep Bill O’Reilly, Trump said that medical marijuana was helping people with serious problems. “It really does help them,” he said. At a political rally in Reno months before, he told voters in Nevada, where a recreational marijuana market opened last year: “In terms of marijuana and legalization, I think that should be a state issue, state-by-state.”
The move by his attorney general on Thursday flies in the face of those reassurances.
As much as Attorney General Jeff Sessions would like to turn back the dial, marijuana isn’t going anywhere. As many as 15 states are considering legalization in 2018. Even conservatives lawmakers, who might’ve at one point opposed legalization on moral grounds, aren’t going to defy the will of voters they represent in Washington.
And they certainly aren’t taking any guff from an appointed official whose only argument against weed is “good people don’t smoke marijuana.”
Update, 3:30pm: A cannabis policy researcher at the RAND Corporation explains to Gizmodo that a provision passed in 2014 forbids the Justice Department from spending funds to crack down on medical marijuana legalized at the state level. However, the so-called Rohrabacher-Bluemenauer Amendment must be re-approved each fiscal year to continue that protection.
Update, 4:45pm: Here’s another comment sent to Gizmodo by Republican Congressman Ken Buck of the Colorado 4th:
“Coloradans made a clear choice to legalize marijuana, but Congress has failed to bring federal laws into alignment with the will of state voters, leaving us with an outdated approach to federal enforcement. Public safety has and should remain primarily a state function.”