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Jeff Sessions Eyes a Crackdown on Medical Marijuana, but Federal Policy Remains Unclear

Attorney General Jeff Sessions appears more interested in making arrests than in the science on cannabis.

This story has been updated.

The Trump administration’s policy toward legal marijuana began to emerge from the fog this week, and it appears that Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his underlings remain more interested in orchestrating law enforcement crackdowns than in the current scientific understanding of cannabis.

Sessions wants greater freedom to prosecute medical marijuana businesses and patients in states where the drug is a legal medicine. Federal authorities allege that “dangerous drug traffickers” and international “criminal organizations” cultivate marijuana under state medical marijuana laws and sell it in states where the drug is still illegal, according to a May 1 letter from Sessions to members of Congress obtained this week by the and The Washington Post.

Sessions’ assistant attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, told members of Congress on Tuesday that the Department of Justice would continue a policy on state-legal marijuana adopted in 2013 by the Obama administration, at least for the near future. That policy, as laid out in 2013 by the famous Cole memo, has allowed recreational and medical marijuana businesses to operate in states where legalization has taken hold, despite ongoing federal prohibition.

However, the Cole memo does not carry the force of law and could be revoked at any time, leaving state-legal marijuana on uncertain ground at the federal level. Rosenstein also said marijuana remains illegal under federal law, so it’s the Justice Department’s job to enforce prohibition. He added that marijuana is a “very complicated issue” for the Justice Department, and “scientists have found that there’s no accepted medical use” for cannabis.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican whose home state of Alaska has legalized marijuana for medical and recreational use, had one word for the testimony: “confusing.” (Congress could clarify the matter by passing a law ending federal marijuana prohibition.)

Rosenstein may have also raised some eyebrows at the National Academy of Sciences, which recently reviewed nearly 100 studies and found “substantial evidence” that marijuana is effective at controlling pain and muscle spasms, and “conclusive evidence” that cannabis products can prevent nausea. Marijuana has been used as a remedy for nausea and vomiting in medical settings for decades, if not centuries.

“Last time I checked, neither Rosenstein, Sessions, nor President Trump are doctors and their zeal to threaten those who are sick is disturbing,” said Justin Strekal, political director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, in a statement.

Meanwhile, we learned that Sessions recently asked members of Congress to ditch a budget bill amendment that has kept the Justice Department from prosecuting medical marijuana businesses in the 29 states where the drug is available by prescription. He argued that Congress should not tie his department’s hands “in the midst of a historic drug epidemic,” a reference to the nation’s ongoing epidemic of overdose deaths associated with opioid use.

An opioid overdose can be deadly, but a marijuana overdose, while very unpleasant, is not life-threatening by itself. So, it appears that Sessions is clinging to the myth that marijuana is a “gateway” to harder drugs like opioids. Along with alcohol and nicotine, marijuana is often one of the first drugs that people try, but scientists have long dismissed the idea that marijuana’s effects cause people to use harder drugs like opioids.

In fact, recent research shows that medical cannabis can be used for opiate replacement therapy and as a safer substitute for prescription painkillers, resulting in dramatic drops in dependency, overdose deaths and hospitalizations. Opioid painkillers are a main driver of the overdose epidemic, and last year researchers found that the number of prescriptions for painkillers filled by Medicare dropped significantly in states with medical marijuana programs.

Sessions and Rosenstein get their “science” from the Drug Enforcement Agency rather than the National Academy of Sciences and independent sources. The agency routinely denies that marijuana and other drugs researched as medicine, such as MDMA and psychedelic mushrooms, have any medical benefit, which justifies their placement at the top of the government’s list of substances prohibited under federal law.

As Truthout has reported, the Drug Enforcement Agency and its partner in the White House, the Office of National Drug Control Policy, are at the center of the government’s failed “war on drugs” and may be more interested in maintaining drug prohibition in the name of self-preservation than science.

So, what do Sessions and Rosenstein want to do with their antiquated perceptions of marijuana science? Sessions’ letter asks members of Congress to drop a budget amendment first passed in 2014 that bars the Justice Department from using federal funds to prosecute medical marijuana businesses and users, unless a court rules that they are not in compliance with state medical marijuana laws.

The budget amendment was first introduced in 2014 and was approved again this year, extending the federal protection until September. Murkowski and a bipartisan group of lawmakers reintroduced the amendment on Thursday, just a few days after Sessions’ letter made headlines.

Polls show that voters overwhelmingly oppose a federal crackdown on state-legal marijuana, and 93 percent support legal access to medical marijuana. Many members of Congress come from states with legal medical regimes, so it’s unlikely that they will interrupt their budget negotiations in the fall to honor Sessions’ request.

The budget amendment only protects people who provide and use medical marijuana, not marijuana growers and dispensaries that sell recreational weed in states where it’s legal. Under the Cole memo, the Justice Department leaves law enforcement duties around marijuana to local authorities unless they fit into a list of federal priorities, which includes preventing “criminal enterprises” and “gangs” from profiting from marijuana grown in legal states.

It appears that Sessions is looking to bust those who grow marijuana under the protection of state laws and sell it under the table, or in states where the drug is illegal. In his letter to Congress, Sessions suggested a link between medical marijuana and violent crime — another federal enforcement priority listed in the Cole memo — even though research shows that violent crime rates tend to drop significantly when states legalize marijuana.

“For the moment the Cole memo remains our policy,” Rosenstein said. “There may be an opportunity to review it in the future, but at the moment I’m not aware of any proposal to change it. But I think we’re all going to have to deal with it in the future.”

That future may come sooner than later. Earlier this year, Sessions ordered a task force created by President Trump to review several Justice Department policies, including the Cole Memo. The task force’s deadline for submitting its initial findings is July 27.

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