Attorney General Jeff Sessions (Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images)

Jeff Sessions calls for “more competition” among medical marijuana growers for research

In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said there should be “more competition” among growers who supply marijuana for federally approved research, though he said he thought the current applicant pool of 26 was too many.

His statement came in response to a question from Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Republican from Utah. Hatch referred to legislation he recently co-sponsored with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, known as the MEDS Act. “I believe that scientists need to study the potential benefits and risks of marijuana,” said Hatch, though clarifying that “I remain opposed to the broad legalization of marijuana.”

Hatch said he was “very concerned” with reports that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Justice Department (DOJ) “are at odds” over granting additional applications for cultivating marijuana for research purposes. In August, DEA officials said they had been waiting for the Justice Department’s sign-off to move forward on 25 applications, and expressed frustration that the Justice Department had not been willing to provide that sign-off.

“Can you clarify the position of the Justice Department regarding these applications?” Hatch asked the head of the DOJ.

Sessions responded:

“We have a marijuana research system working now. There is one supplier of the marijuana for that research. People have asked that there be multiple sources of the marijuana for medicinal research and have asked that it be approved. I believe there are now 26 applications for approval of suppliers who would provide marijuana for medicinal research. Each one of those has to be supervised by the DEA, and I have raised questions about how many and let’s be sure we’re doing this in the right way because it costs a lot of money to supervise these [indecipherable]. I think it would be healthy to have some more competition in the supply but I’m sure we don’t need 26 new suppliers.”

This statement comes after months of concern that Sessions has plans to crack down on both medical marijuana and adult-use marijuana, and after his own request to Congress in May of this year to be allowed to prosecute medical marijuana providers.

In August 2016, the DEA said that private companies would be able to apply to grow medical marijuana to develop cannabis-based medicines with federal approval. That announcement was coupled with the DEA’s denial of petitions to reschedule marijuana in the federal Controlled Substances Act. The Schedule I status of cannabis is widely considered a hindrance to further study of the substance.

Sessions was representing the Justice Department during an oversight hearing. He has been asked to speak to the Trump administration about DOJ policies on drugs, crime, terrorism, immigration and other topics. The hearing was the Senate Judiciary Committee’s first opportunity to quiz Sessions since his confirmation hearing.

Sessions also discussed the asset forfeiture policy overseen by the DOJ, and touted the department’s new internal watchdog which will monitor the program that allows state and local police to confiscate cash and property from people suspected of committing a crime that violates federal law — even if they haven’t been charged — and then share the proceeds with federal agencies.

Watch the full proceedings of AG Jeff Sessions’ testimony