Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017 in Washington. (Alex Brandon, Associated Press)

In the midst of Congressional grilling, Sessions takes heat on marijuana attitude

As U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions testified before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, he fielded pressing question on the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russians – and his past remarks on marijuana.

Steve Chabot, a Republican from Ohio, which is in the process of implementing its medical marijuana program, noted that while it remains illegal under federal law, many states have legalized cannabis for medicinal or recreational purposes. Given that disparity, Chabot asked Sessions to clarify, “What is your department’s policy on that, relative to enforcing the law?”

Sessions did not add any new nuance to the status quo, responding, “Our policy is the same really, fundamentally, as the Holder-Lynch policy, which is that the federal law remains in effect and a state can legalize marijuana for its law enforcement purposes, but it still remains illegal with regard to federal purposes.”

Moments later, Stephen Cohen, a Democrat from Tennessee, where medical marijuana is still under discussion, followed up on Sessions’ response. Referring to the Rohrbacher-Farr amendment, Cohen outlined how former attorney generals Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch abided by federal enforcement limits imposed by congressional budget appropriation in states that had passed medical marijuana laws. He asked, “Will you abide by congressional appropriations and limitations on marijuana when it would conflict with state laws?”

“I believe we are bound by that,” replied Sessions, who has asked Congress to not renew the amendment.

Cohen also pushed back on a quote from Sessions earlier this year regarding the relationship between marijuana and heroin. In March, Sessions said in a speech to law enforcement, “I’ve heard people say we could solve our heroin problem with marijuana. How stupid is that? Give me a break!”

In the prepared notes for that speech, Sessions had written, “I am astonished to hear people suggest that we can solve our heroin crisis by legalizing marijuana — so people can trade one life-wrecking dependency for another that’s only slightly less awful.”

On Tuesday, Cohen pressed Sessions on this claim. “Marijuana is not as dangerous as heroin — do you agree with that?”

“I think that’s correct,” replied Sessions.

“Well thank you sir,” responded Cohen, who went on to advise Sessions that when it comes to enforcement the attorney general should “look at the limitations you’ve got… Put your enforcement on crack, on cocaine, on meth, on opioids, and on heroin. Marijuana is the least bothersome of all.”

Cohen quoted a recent study and advised, “In states where they’ve got medical marijuana they have 25% less opioid use. It gives people a way to relieve pain without using opioids… So I would hope you’d take a look at that.”

Sessions responded: “We will take a look at it. We will be looking at some rigorous analysis of the marijuana usage and how it plays out. I am not as optimistic as you.”

Cohen wrapped his line of cannabis questioning with a reference to another Sessions quote that has been an ongoing source of concern to marijuana legalization advocates.

“You said one time that ‘Good people don’t smoke marijuana,'” he said. “Which of these people would you say are not good people?” Cohen listed Republicans John Kasich, George Pataki, Rick Santorum, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, George Bush, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, implying all of those listed have at some point said they used marijuana.

“Which of those are not good people?” he asked.

Sessions responded: “Let me tell you how that came about. The question was what do you do about drug use, the epidemic we’re seeing in the country, and how you reverse it. Part of that is a cultural thing. I explained how when I became United States Attorney in 1981, and drugs were being used widely, over a period of years, it became unfashionable, unpopular, and… it was seen as such that good people didn’t use marijuana. That was the context of that statement.”

Watch Sessions’ original “Good people don’t use marijuana” statement