Congress is heading for a confrontation with Attorney General Jeff Sessions over pot.
Sessions is seeking to crack down on marijuana use while lawmakers from both parties are pushing legislation that would do the opposite.
Measures have been attached to must-pass bills in the Senate that would allow Veterans Affairs doctors to counsel patients on the use of medical marijuana, and to continue blocking the Justice Department from pursuing cases against people who use medical marijuana in states that have legalized it.
Some lawmakers are pushing to go even further. Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, this week unveiled legislation that would legalize marijuana at the federal level. In the House, Republican Matt Gaetz of Florida proposed legislation that would change the federal classification of marijuana to allow research and a range of medical uses.
Booker said the law needs to be changed because minorities and the poor are disproportionately arrested for what amounts to a minor offense.
“It disturbs me right now that Attorney General Jeff Sessions is not moving as the states are — moving as public opinion is — but actually saying that we should be doubling down and enforcing federal marijuana laws even in states that have made marijuana legal,” he said in a video posted Tuesday on Facebook.
Eight states have fully legalized marijuana for adult use and 21 more have legalized it for medical use only. Federal law continues to ban the use and sale of cannabis. During the Obama administration, the Justice Department didn’t actively prosecute marijuana offenders, an approach Sessions has said needs to change.
“I’m not sure we’re going to be a better, healthier nation,” he said in February, “if we have marijuana being sold at every corner grocery store.” He later added, “My best view is that we don’t need to be legalizing marijuana.”
In April, Sessions put out a memo to U.S. attorneys about his crime-reduction efforts and said one of his subcommittees will “undertake a review of existing policies in the areas of charging, sentencing, and marijuana to ensure consistency with the department’s overall strategy on reducing violent crime and with administration goals and priorities.”
Sarah Flores, a Justice Department spokeswoman, declined to comment on the matter.
The president has repeatedly expressed his dissatisfaction with Sessions, a former senator from Alabama, for recusing himself from a federal investigation into whether there was collusion between Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia. The new White House chief of staff, John Kelly, told Sessions in a phone call over the weekend that Trump doesn’t intend to fire him, according to a person familiar with the conversation.
The Veterans Administration measure, sponsored by Republican Sen. Steve Daines of Montana and Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, was added to a bill approved by the Appropriations Committee on July 13. The measure preventing funds from being used to crack down on medical marijuana was sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, and was approved by the Appropriations Committee on July 27.
The Republican-controlled Congress is already on record supporting medical marijuana. Since 2014, the Justice Department spending bill has included language that blocks funds from being used to enforce federal law relating to medical marijuana in states where the drug is legal.
Gaetz, the Florida lawmaker who introduced his marijuana legislation in April, said at the time that pot shouldn’t be classified by the federal government the same way as heroin or LSD.
“We do not need to continue with a policy that turns thousands of young people into felons every year,” he said in a statement. “Nor do we need to punish the millions of people who are sick and seeking medical help — from pain, from muscle wasting, from chemotherapy-induced nausea.”
Bloomberg’s Erik Wasson and Jennifer Kaplan contributed.