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Sessions: ‘Unwise’ for Congress to Stand in Way of DOJ Going After Pot

Clouds of smoke rise from the burning upper floors just before the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York collapse, 11 September 2001. (Photo by Hubert Boesl/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

WASHINGTON – Attorney General Jeff Sessions has asked Congress to reverse protections from federal prosecution for medical marijuana users and proprietors in states that have legalized pot, according to a letter that surfaced this week.

Sessions in a May 1 letter, which was first obtained by Massroots.com, reaffirmed the Justice Department’s opposition to the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, which bars DOJ from spending appropriated funds to prosecute medical marijuana users and proprietors in legal states like Colorado, Washington and Oregon. The amendment was first approved in appropriations language in 2014 and must be renewed with each fiscal year. There were no objections to its inclusion in May’s omnibus bill.

“I believe it would be unwise for Congress to restrict the discretion of the Department to fund particular prosecutions, particularly in the midst of an historic drug epidemic and potentially long-term uptick in violent crime,” Sessions wrote in the letter to congressional leaders in both chambers. “The Department must be in a position to use all laws available to combat the transnational organizations and dangerous drug traffickers who threaten American lives.”

Sessions claimed that illegal drug traffickers are using medical marijuana laws as a shield, noting an uptick in “Cuban, Asian, Caucasian and Eurasian” criminal organizations delivering interstate shipments from legal states. The attorney general cited a Denver Post article from March detailing charges brought against a drug ring, in which eight of the 16 people indicted held a Colorado marijuana license.

Sessions also listed the negative impacts of marijuana use, including psychosis, respiratory ailments, IQ loss and substance abuse, while pointing to a recent Duke University study. The report found that people who habitually smoked marijuana in their teens lost an average of eight IQ points by middle age. Sessions wrote that it’s no surprise the Department of Health and Human Services and the Drug Enforcement Administration in 2016 denied a petition to reconsider marijuana as a Schedule I substance under the Control Substances Act. Other Schedule I substances include heroin, LSD and ecstasy.

Marijuana advocate Mason Tvert, of the Colorado-based Marijuana Policy Project, said in an interview Tuesday that he’s not surprised America’s top law enforcement official is appealing to cull all resources possible to prosecute against marijuana users. He added, however, that he’s hesitant to read too far into the letter.

“We certainly believe that support is just as strong, if not stronger, than it was when (Rohrabacher-Farr) last passed,” he said, citing an April poll from Quinnipiac University showing that 94 percent of American voters support legal medical marijuana use. “We know that the public wants the Justice Department to stay out of it. We know that Congress wants the Justice Department to stay out of it. It’s not terribly surprising that the Justice Department doesn’t want the Justice Department to stay out of it.”

DOJ objected in 2016 to the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit’s interpretation that Rohrabacher-Farr can be broadly applied to block DOJ prosecution against organizations and individuals, while also preventing the department from obstructing state rights to implement marijuana policy. The court decided that DOJ could not pursue charges unless the entities in question violated state law.

Tvert said that the Denver Post story highlighted a few individuals who have abused the medical marijuana system in the state. Law enforcement doesn’t crack down on the entire transportation system because some drivers run red lights, he added.

“We should be looking out for those who violate the law but not placing unreasonable restrictions on all citizens,” he said, noting that alcohol abuse and violence hasn’t lead to a widespread crackdown on industry.

As far as Sessions’ suggestion that medical marijuana use contributes to the national opioid crisis, Tvert countered that marijuana serves as a safe alternative to dangerous, addiction-forming painkillers.