The United States has not had an official attorney general since November 7th, 2018 when Jeff Sessions was forced to submit his resignation. Over two months later, William Barr, President Trump’s nominee for the head of the Justice Department sat before a Senate congressional committee addressing questions concerning everything from the Mueller investigation to marijuana legalization. New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, a marijuana legalization advocate and sponsor of The Marijuana Justice Act, immediately asked about Barr’s intentions towards state legal marijuana businesses.
“You know that 30 plus states have legalized medical marijuana or adult-use. You are aware of that, correct?” asked Senator Booker of AG nominee William Barr. “Yes,” replied Barr. Booker continued, “In 2018 Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Cole Memorandum which provided guidance to U.S. attorneys that the federal marijuana prohibition should not be enforced in states that have legalized marijuana in one way or another. Do you believe it was the right decision to rescind the Cole Memorandum?”
William Barr’s response was neither yes or no, but he wanted to make his position clear. “My approach to this would be not to upset settled expectations and the reliant interests that have arisen as a result of the Cole Memorandum. And, investments have been made and so there has been reliance on it and so I don’t think it’s appropriate to upset those interests.” He continued, “I think the current situation is untenable and really has to be addressed. It’s almost like a backdoor nullification of federal law.”
Booker stepped in again at this point to clarify Barr’s position. “Do you think it’s appropriate to use federal resourced to target marijuana businesses that are in compliance with state laws?” Barr immediately responded, “No…I’m not going to go after companies that have relied on the Cole Memorandum. However, we should either have a federal law that prohibits marijuana everywhere, which I would support myself because I think it’s a mistake to back off on marijuana. If we want states to have their own laws then let’s get there and let’s get there the right way.”
William Barr to @CoryBooker: We either should have a federal law that prohibits marijuana everywhere, which I would support myself, ’cause I think it’s a mistake to back off on marijuana. However, if we want a federal approach, if we want states to have their own laws…” (cont.) pic.twitter.com/EgogMltZsu
— CSPAN (@cspan) January 15, 2019
These responses from Attorney General Nominee William Barr are very telling. As opposed to Jeff Sessions who made his position as Attorney General very personal and struggled with understanding the ultimate objective of the Justice Department, William Barr is saying that despite his personal bias against the legalization of cannabis, he clearly understands now that it is the will of the people to see cannabis legalized nationally. There are 33 states now with permissive medical marijuana laws, along with Puerto Rico, and 10 states that have legalized the consumption of adult-use marijuana, along with the U.S. Territories of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. According to poll data collected by the Center of American Progress, 68% of voters approve the legalization of marijuana.
Specifically though, Barr’s comment concerning investments in the cannabis space should be drawing the attention of the cannabis industry. He does not think it is appropriate to upset the interests of those that have invested into the cannabis space. The immediate impact of Sessions’s rescinding the Cole Memo was investors pulling back from the cannabis industry. The cannabis sector of the stock market had reached all time highs at the beginning of last year and it was not a coincidence that shortly after U.S. Attorneys around the country were free to prosecute state legal cannabis companies, though none did, that the market pulled back sharply. Renewed investor interest should come back to the market if William Barr is officially named as Attorney General. It also seems even more likely that federal legislation descheduling marijuana and legalizing cannabis nationally is on the near-term horizon.