There were some concerns at first that President Trump’s nominee for attorney general, William Barr, could be just as bad, if not worse, for the marijuana movement than the pot-hating Jeff Sessions. Not only was Barr a staunch drug warrior for the George H.W. Bush administration, but he is also known for masterminding policies that are responsible for escalating the drug war in the 1990s.
But that was then, this is now, and it appears that Barr could be a strong choice when it comes to protecting the legal marijuana industry.
During his Senate confirmation hearing earlier on Tuesday, Barr told members of the Judiciary Committee that if he were to be made the next attorney general, he would not impose any sort of crackdown on states that have legalized marijuana. “To the extent people are complying with the state laws in distribution and production and so forth, we’re not going to go after that,” he said.
This is good news for the cannabis community, as it has spent the past couple of years not knowing which side of the cannabis debate the Trump administration was standing on. President Trump is supposedly big on states’ rights, but he did allow former Attorney General Jeff Sessions to conduct a certain level of psychological warfare against the cannabis industry, which made everyone think that legal pot states were on the verge of being shut down by the Justice Department.
Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey was first to grill Barr over marijuana policy in his confirmation hearing, asking for his opinion on the present clash between states that have legalized the leaf and federal law. Although Barr made it apparent that he is not personally a supporter of marijuana legalization, he seems to understand that this is the direction America is heading. Yet, above and beyond that, he believes the federal government is dragging its feet and needs to make a decision on which way the country is moving on this issue.
“We either should have a federal law that prohibits marijuana everywhere, which I would support myself. Because I think that it’s a mistake to back off on marijuana. However, if we [don’t] want a federal approach, if we want states to have their own laws, then let’s get there and let’s get there the right way,” Barr said.
When Booker asked whether Sessions was warranted in tossing the Cole Memo — a non-binding document intended to let states safely experiment with marijuana legalization — in the trash, Barr responded by saying that the business community needs some reassurance that associations with legal weed will not invoke the wrath of Uncle Sam. That’s when he first mentioned that a Justice Department with him at the reins would not set out to disassemble the legal cannabis trade.
“I’m not going to go after companies that have relied on the Cole memorandum,” he said in response to Booker’s inquiry about whether the government should be spending tax dollars to prosecute marijuana operations in compliance with state law. Yet, he did not say if he would author a new memo.
Still a Need for Caution: Barr’s Stance on the Criminal Justice System
This does not mean that Barr will be progressive when it comes to his stance on the drug culture. In fact, it does not appear his prohibitionist attitude has changed much since the days when he wrote “there is no better way [than mass incarceration] to reduce crime than to identify, target, and incapacitate those hardened criminals who commit staggering numbers of violent crimes whenever they are on the streets.” Barr’s belief that “a small group of hardened, chronic offenders” and “violent predators” are responsible for the demoralization of America would be a nice fit for the Trump administration.
Most recently, in an op-ed for the Washington Post, Barr and two other former attorneys general praised Sessions for his “tough on crime” approach, especially his move to impose harsher sentences on drug dealers. The article suggests that the policies ushered in by Sessions are responsible for reducing “the rates of murder, violent crime generally, opioid prescription fraud and drug overdose deaths” all across the United States.
So, while Barr would be far from a perfect selection in the grand scheme of common sense drug reform, he’s a step up from what we had before.
Cannabis advocates are excited about Barr’s willingness to respect state marijuana laws.
“It is encouraging that William Barr pledged not to enforce federal marijuana prohibition against the majority of U.S. states that have reformed their laws. With this commitment, Congress has a clear mandate to take action and end the underlying policy of federal criminalization,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal said in a statement. “In an era when 47 states have laws on the books that defy the Schedule I status of cannabis, it makes no sense from a political, fiscal, or cultural perspective to try to put this genie back in the bottle.”
Steve Hawkins, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, said the organization was “pleased” to learn that Barr would take a hands-off approach to states that have taken pot to legal territory.
“His reference to the Cole Memo suggests that he will maintain the policy of non-interference that has existed since August 2013. This is not only a sensible decision, but is one supported by a vast majority of Americans,” Hawkins said in a statement. “We are also sympathetic to Mr. Barr’s call for a more consistent federal approach, provided it is one that respects the will of the people. To that end, it is time for Congress to pass a law that either removes marijuana from the federal Controlled Substances Act or formally exempts state-legal cannabis activity from its provisions.”
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told the Associated Press that Barr is “qualified by any reasonable standard” to take over as the next U.S. attorney general. As long as he picks up the Democratic votes, Graham says, there is good chance Barr will soon be running the Justice Department.
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