Attorney general nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 10, 2017, in the first day of his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. (Andrew Harnik, The Associated Press)

Jeff Sessions vague about marijuana strategy at AG Senate hearing

Under U.S. law, marijuana possession and distribution is illegal, but just how Sen. Jeff Sessions would enforce that law as the nation’s attorney general was not immediately clear Tuesday when the topic was broached in his Senate confirmation hearing.

“I won’t commit to never enforcing federal law,” Sessions said in response to Sen. Patrick Leahy’s question about conflicting federal and state marijuana laws, adding: “But absolutely, it’s a problem of resources for the federal government.

“The Department of Justice under (AG Loretta) Lynch and (Eric) Holder set forth some policies that they thought were appropriate to define what cases should be prosecuted in states that have legalized at least in some fashion some parts of marijuana.”

Sessions, a Republican senator from Alabama elected to his fourth term in 2014, has taken public stances opposing marijuana legalization and has criticized the Obama administration for its laissez-faire approach to cannabis laws in states such as Colorado, which legalized the recreational use of marijuana.

After November’s election, nearly 30 states have legalized the medical use of marijuana and eight of those states have legalized the adult-use of cannabis.

When asked if he agreed with the guidelines put in place under the Obama administration, which includes the 2013 Cole Memo that spelled out approaches for federal agencies, Sessions responded:

“I think some of them are truly valuable in evaluating cases, but fundamentally the criticism I think that was legitimate is that they may not have been followed. Using good judgment about how to handle these cases will be a responsibility of mine. I know it won’t be an easy decision, but I will try to do my duty in a fair and just way.”

During a full day of testimony, Sessions fielded senators’ wide-ranging questions on topics such as civil rights; law enforcement; crime; the rights of women and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community; voting rights; immigration; terrorism; Russia and military detention.

Six hours into the hearing, marijuana legalization came into the spotlight in a question by Leahy, D-Vermont, with Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, posing a follow-up on federalist approaches to law enforcement.

“I think one obvious concern is that the United States Congress has made the possession of marijuana in every state and distribution of it an illegal act,” Sessions said in response to Lee. “If that something is not desired any longer, Congress should pass the law to change the rule.

“It’s not so much the attorney general’s job to decide what laws to enforce. We should do our job and enforce laws effectively as we’re able.”

Sessions’ remarks garnered mixed reviews among marijuana legalization proponents, among them Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.):

“Nothing Senator Sessions said today shows he understands that the War on Drugs is a failure. Veterans, cancer patients, and parents of babies suffering from seizures need certainty. They need to know that the federal government will respect state laws and not come barging into their homes to take them to jail – especially since most of those state laws have been approved by votes of the people. If confirmed, Sessions should respect the will of the voters and the nearly 250 million people now living in jurisdictions where some form of marijuana is legal.”

The executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, indicated that Sessions’ comments were troubling.

“After finally being put on the spot and questioned on the issue, we are no closer to clarity in regards to Sessions’ plans for how to treat state marijuana laws than we were yesterday,” Erik Altieri, NORML’s executive director, said in a statement. “If anything, his comments are a cause for concern and can be interpreted as leaving the door open for enforcing federal law in legalized states. If Sessions wants to be an attorney general for all Americans, he must bring his views in line with the majority of the population and support allowing states to set their own marijuana policies without fear of federal intervention.”

Polls released in the past year suggest that public opinion favoring marijuana legalization has reached its highest-ever levels.

Legalization also rose to prominence as a topic of interest during Election 2016, in which nine states voted on some form of marijuana legalization — eight of which approved said measures — and presidential candidates openly addressed a topic that was taboo for many election cycles.

President-elect Donald Trump, who has spoken in favor of states’ rights, has previously said he would not interfere with legal marijuana states, including those that have implemented adult-use regulations.

On Fox News’ “Outnumbered” on Tuesday, Sean Spicer, Trump’s pick for White House press secretary, told show host Kennedy that the president-elect’s Cabinet picks would promote the administration’s agenda and not their own:

“I think there’s genuine concerns about how our country – and how our young kids, in particular – have handled drugs and alcohol. And it’s something that we’ve got to be careful with,” Spicer said.

Kennedy pointed out that Trump has previously voiced his support for medical marijuana and a softer prosecutorial line against drug abuse, which she said would seem to put him in “diametric opposition” to Sessions.

“When you come into a Trump administration, it’s the Trump agenda that you are implementing, not your own,” Spicer said. “And I think that Sen. Sessions is well aware of that.”

Considering Spicer’s comments and Sessions’ statements, the Marijuana Policy Project, a pro-legalization group that lobbies for policy reform, said its leadership was cautiously optimistic.

“It is notable that Sen. Sessions chose not to commit to vigorously enforcing federal prohibition laws in states that have reformed their marijuana laws,” Robert Capecchi, MPP’s director of federal policies, said in a statement. “He also recognized that enforcing federal marijuana laws would be dependent upon the availability of resources, the scarcity of which poses a problem. He was given the opportunity to take an extreme prohibitionist approach and he passed on it.

“It’s also promising that Donald Trump’s spokesperson said earlier in the day that the next attorney general would follow the president-elect’s lead on the issue.”