Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s apparent plans to prosecute medical marijuana distributors in states that have legalized it are a waste of time, according to former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who said the U.S. had bigger priorities to focus on.
“With respect to everything else going on in the U.S., this is pretty low priority," Gonzales, a Republican who led the Justice Department under President George W. Bush, told Newsweek.
“To prosecute an act that is otherwise lawful under state law, one could make the argument [that] as a matter of policy, we’ve got other priorities we ought to be spending our resources on.”
Gonzales was talking about the tensions between state law and federal law when it comes to medical marijuana. Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia have legalized pot for medical purposes and others are in the process of doing so, but it’s still illegal on the federal level under the Controlled Substances Act. Because the Justice Department’s resources are limited, however, Gonzales said the agency needs to prioritize bigger problems.
Attorneys general don’t, however, work alone on setting agendas.
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“What people often fail to understand or appreciate, is that the attorney general works for the president,” he said. “While the attorney general has a great deal of say about law enforcement policy, so does the White House. When Jeff Sessions makes something, he responds to the White House.”
It's unclear whether the Justice Department's marijuana agenda comes from Sessions or from the White House, but President Donald Trump has not been especially vocal about medical marijuana, or marijuana in general. He and the attorney general have often butted heads publicly, so the idea of prosecuting marijuana cases could very well come from Sessions.
Trump has called Sessions’s position on Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of state “weak” said said he didn’t know whether he would fire Sessions if the Justice Department failed to investigate Clinton. The New York Times reported that Trump berated and humiliated Sessions in the Oval Office after the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller to lead the FBI investigation into allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. The question of whether Trump will push back on Sessions’s marijuana agenda, or whether he agrees with it, has yet to be answered.
Adding to that tension, Gonzales said, is the fact that “the optics just aren’t very good, quite frankly.”
Indeed, 94 percent of the country supports medical marijuana, according to an August Quinnipiac poll. Sessions has already raised eyebrows with his use of decades-old anti-drug rhetoric, such as saying earlier this year that marijuana is only “slightly less awful” than heroin, and his labeling of pot smokers as bad people. Ordering Drug Enforcement Agency agents to raid dispensaries or production sites in states where medical marijuana is legal would certainly be a divisive move.
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