Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (Associated Press)

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein: “From a legal and scientific perspective, marijuana is an unlawful drug.”

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appeared before the Senate and House Appropriations committees Tuesday to discuss the Justice Department’s budget, and was faced with questions on law enforcement priorities, the investigation into Russia’s influence on the 2016 election and a question at each hearing on the Department’s stance on marijuana.

Rosenstein’s testimony is especially relevant given the revelation that Sessions has requested congressional leaders to undo federal medical marijuana protections that have been in place since 2014, specifically an amendment contained within the federal spending bill. The amendment, previously known as “Rohrabacher-Farr,” now co-sponsored by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-California and Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Oregon, prevents the Justice Department from using funds to hinder the implementation of medical marijuana laws in U.S. states and territories.

In the Senate hearing, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) used part of her time to ask about marijuana, and the tension between federal law, under which cannabis is illegal, and states like Alaska which have legalized recreational as well as medical marijuana. “I’m concerned,” she said, “and speaking for a lot of people in my state who are worried.”

Rosenstein responded, “We do have a conflict between federal law and the law in some states. It’s a difficult issue for parents like me, who have to provide guidance to our kids… I’ve talked to Chuck Rosenberg, the administrator of the DEA and we follow the law and the science. And from a legal and scientific perspective, marijuana is an unlawful drug. It’s properly scheduled under Schedule I. And therefore we have this conflict.”

He also mentioned that there may be changes coming to the Cole Memorandum. “Jim Cole tried to deal with it in that memorandum and at the moment that memorandum is still in effect. Maybe there will be changes to it in the future but we’re still operating under that policy which is an effort to balance the conflicting interests with regard to marijuana. So I can assure you that is going to be a high priority for me as the U.S. Attorneys come on board to talk about how to deal with that challenge in the states that have legalized or decriminalized marijuana, whether it be for recreational or medical use…”

He concluded that the Department of Justice is “responsible for enforcing the law. It’s illegal, and that is the federal policy with regards to marijuana.”

Murkowski responded only, “Confusing.”

In the afternoon, Rosenstein appeared before the House appropriations committee.

Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Washington state) asked about the Cole Memo and the task force Sessions has set up to review the memo. “Do you have any update on the Cole Memo? Does the Department plan to update or rescind the memo?”

Rosenstein replied: “I do not have an update. I can tell you, it’s a very complicated issue for us. Under federal law as passed by the Congress, and given the science concerning marijuana, it’s a Schedule I controlled substance. That’s a decision I’ve talked with (DEA) Administrator Rosenberg about. Some states have taken a different approach and legalized or decriminalized marijuana for medical use and in some cases recreational use…”

Here Rosenstein smiled.

He continued, “The question of whether it’s legal under federal law is resolved because Congress has passed a law — it’s illegal. Scientists have found that there’s no accepted medical use for it. Cole made an effort to examine the issue and find a way forward for the department where we could continue with our obligation to enforce federal law and minimize the intrusion on states that were attempting to follow a different path.”

He concluded by reiterating that the department is reserving the right to revise the Cole Memo. “For the moment the Cole Memo remains our policy,” he said. “There may be an opportunity to review it in the future, but at the moment I’m not aware of any proposal to change it. But I think we’re all going to have to deal with it in the future.”

The Cannabist covered both hearings in a live blog that we have archived.