Holder spent years mum on the issue of marijuana reform, despite being the top law enforcement official in the land — who was appointed by a president who made campaign trail promises of cannabis reform. It would take years to catch up to those promises and plenty of people ended up in handcuffs in the process.
The Washington Examiner first reported the former Attorney General made the comments while speaking at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “Sessions’ almost obsession with marijuana I think is the thing that’s put the Justice Department in this strange place,” said Holder.
However, despite Sessions’ dreams of a full-scale crackdown on the marijuana world, he has yet to reach the levels of enforcement overseen by Holder between 2009 and 2013, when the now-famous Cole Memo dictated the Department of Justice wouldn’t interfere in recreational marijuana states.
Holder defended the state of DOJ marijuana policy when he left — the policies Jeff Sessions is currently working on getting to the chopping block as fast as possible.
“I think the policy we had in place was a good one: Let the states experiment with the notion that again we have these eight or nine federal factors and if you trigger one of these eight or nine factors the feds are going to be coming in,” Holder told the crowd, according to the Examiner.
Activists tend to get a kick out of Holder’s pot talk. Obviously, they’re thrilled to have a former Attorney General on the team, but it would have been pretty great if he took his new stance while still holding the reigns of law enforcement. Marijuana Majority Chairman Tom Angell pointed to Holder’s previous flip-flop on marijuana scheduling as an example.
“While I appreciate that Holder endorsed rescheduling after leaving office, it’s more than a little annoying that he didn’t do anything about it while he had the power to change cannabis’s federal classification,” Angell told Cannabis Now.
“In that context, his comments about the current attorney general’s marijuana policies are pretty rich,” said Angell.
Also during the speech, Holder noted these advances on marijuana must have made the Department of Justice feel like a strange place. If that’s the case, Holder must have had it feeling like the Twilight Zone at the peak of his enforcement.
NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri says Holder presents an interesting case study in terms of how a US Attorney General grapples with the growing movement to legalize marijuana in our country, particularly compared to Jeff Sessions.
“It is true that the Department of Justice under Holder sought prosecutions against some state legal medical providers and as Attorney General he came out firmly in opposition to the Proposition 19,” said Altieri. “It is also true that during the legalization campaigns of 2012 and in the years that followed, Holder and his Deputy Attorney General James Cole publicly set a tone that implied the administration would take a firm hands-off approach to state marijuana laws, a strategy they codified in the now famous Cole Memo.”
Altieri believes despite these “very questionable legal actions” against certain operators, the broad message flowing from the DOJ at the time was that they would allow states to proceed with state medical and recreational marijuana programs. “The industry responded and entered its largest period of growth and investment and citizens responded with increased public support and more pressure on their lawmakers to reform laws,” said Altieri.
Altieri says it is completely fair to criticize the Obama administration and Eric Holder for not going far enough in ending federal marijuana prohibition, but he said that Sessions has done more damage. “So far, the direction set by Attorney General Sessions with his constant and aggressive attacks on marijuana and his attempts to roll back our progress by working to defeat amendments aimed at keeping state marijuana laws out of his reach represents a far graver and existential threat to reform,” he said.
Morgan Fox of the Marijuana Policy Project said it seemed like Holder’s earlier bad behavior was before the criminal justice evolution in the second term. “Now everyone has either legitimately learned the right lessons or can read the writing on the wall in terms of reelection or getting a solid job.”
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