In what was certainly an unexpected move, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions stated before a Senate panel on April 25 that “there may well be some benefits from medical marijuana,” and added that it is “perfectly appropriate to study” cannabis.
The proverbial bombshell came in testimony before the Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies, one of 12 subcommittees of the Senate Committee on Appropriations. The hearing was called to review spending requests for the Justice Department. Sessions’ uncharacteristic comment was initially reported by Tom Angell of the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group Marijuana Majority on his Marijuana Moment blog.
Sessions prefaced his acknowledgement of medical potential with a dismissal of smoking herbaceous cannabis (at least) for medical purposes: “Medical marijuana, as one physician told me, ‘whoever heard of taking a medicine when you have no idea how much medicine you’re taking and ingesting it in the fashion that it is, which is in itself unhealthy?'”
Sessions was responding to questioning by Sen. Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii, who noted research indicating a reduction prescription drug use — and in fatal opioid overdoses — in states that have legalized medical marijuana. Sessions was also dismissive of this idea. He called for more study of this trend, conceding that “science is very important,” but quickly added, “I don’t believe that [trend] will be sustained in the long run.”
Jeff Sessions is still skeptical of medical marijuana and of studies that show a negative correlation between medical marijuana availability and an opioid overdose. pic.twitter.com/27ItC1K9Dv
— HuffPost Politics (@HuffPostPol) April 25, 2018
When pressed by Schatz about DEA approval of applications from universities and companies for cannabis research, Sessions responded: “We are moving forward and we will add fairly soon, I believe, the paperwork and reviews will be completed and we will add additional suppliers of marijuana under the controlled circumstances.”
And as the Washington Times noted, Sessions punted when he was queried by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, about whether he would continue to honor Obama-era Justice Department memos calling for a hands-off policy on medical marijuana in states where it is legal. Sessions basically passed the buck back to Congress and challenged them to change the law, saying, “The federal government has passed some laws on marijuana that I’m not able to remove from the books. Congress — you — have passed them. They are on the books.”
Pressed for clarification on whether his Justice Department would prioritize cannabis enforcement in medical-marijuana states, he continued to equivocate.
“Our priorities are fentanyl, heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine,” Sessions said. “People are dying by massive amounts as a result of those drugs. We have very few — almost zero, virtually zero — small marijuana cases. But if they are a big deal and illegally acting and violating federal law, our agents may work that case.”
So Sessions’ seeming bombshell may ultimately prove something of a dud. As Marijuana Moment noted in its report, in 2016 the Drug Enforcement Administration enacted a new policy intended to license more research cultivators, and the DEA has reportedly since received at least 25 applications to participate in the expanded program. But it has not acted on any of them — apparently because of interference from the Justice Department.
Still, Sessions’ comments may prove useful in pressing the Department of Justice on the issue. NORML political director Justin Strekal told Marijuana Moment: “Over two million registered medical marijuana patients throughout the legal markets can attest to the attorney general’s newfound revelation. What we need is better research on consumer grade marijuana and lawful protections for legal markets, not further deliberation from the DoJ.”
And such pressure may be coming from Congress. A bipartisan group of House lawmakers this week introduced legislation to expand medical marijuana research, The Hill reports. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Republican from Florida, would require the attorney general to annually assess whether there’s an adequate supply of research-grade cannabis for universities and other institutions to study its medical uses. Gaetz said that 25 House members have signed on to the bill.
“One of the reasons I’m so enthusiastic is that we really do have a broad base of support from this bill from Republicans and Democrats, from moderates, conservatives, liberals, libertarians,” Gaetz said. “And I’m hopeful that by finding the area with the common ground, the theory that we ought to create protections for research, that we’ll be able to make some progress on this very important issue.”
But all the signs from Trump’s Department of Justice have heretofore been bad. Sessions in January announced that the prior policy of non-interference with states that have legalized medical marijuana is “unnecessary,” and called on U.S. attorneys to enforce the Controlled Substances Act nationwide. Effectively, this rescinded the Justice Department’s 2009 Ogden Memo and 2011 Cole Memo, which established this policy.
And last month, Sessions issued a memo urging prosecutors to seek the death penalty for those “dealing in extremely large quantities of drugs,” raising fears that this could actually be used against large-scale legal cannabis cultivators in places like California.
TELL US, do you trust Jeff Sessions’ change of heart on medical marijuana?