A number of Republican lawmakers were visibly incensed on Thursday, following a report by the Associated Press that claimed Attorney General Jeff Sessions is considering rescinding an Obama-era policy allowing marijuana legalization to move forward in several states.
The so-called Cole Memo — written by former Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole in 2013 — carved out protections for pro-legalization states from anti-marijuana federal authorities who sought to crack down on cannabis-use. As ThinkProgress reported earlier on Thursday, that policy essentially meant that authorities’ hands were tied, so long as officials kept their legalized marijuana from broaching state lines.
Sources who spoke to the Associated Press, however, stated that Sessions sought to “let federal prosecutors where pot is legal decide how aggressively to enforce federal marijuana law” — a direct contradiction of President Trump’s earlier promise of leaving the issue up to states.
Shortly after the AP report was published, Republican legislators began reacting with contempt.
“.@realDonaldTrump had it right. This must be left up to the states,” Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner (R) tweeted. “This reported action directly contradicts what Attorney General Sessions told me prior to his confirmation. With no prior notice to Congress, the Justice Department has trampled on the will of the voters in CO and other states. I am prepared to take all steps necessary, including holding DOJ nominees, until the Attorney General lives up to the commitment he made to me prior to his confirmation.”
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) also weighed in on Thursday, stating in a Facebook post that she had “repeatedly discouraged Attorney General Sessions from taking this action.”
“Alaskans are waking up to media reports that the US Department of Justice is withdrawing the ‘Cole Memorandum,’ an Obama era policy statement that the federal government will respect state marijuana laws like Alaska’s,” she wrote. “My office can confirm that we received notification from the Justice Department this morning that they intended to withdraw the ‘Cole Memorandum.’ Over the past year I repeatedly discouraged Attorney General Sessions from taking this action and asked that he work with the states and Congress if he feels changes are necessary. Today’s announcement is disruptive to state regulatory regimes and regrettable.”
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) issued a statement as well, but was more muted in his response.
“I continue to believe that this is a states’ rights issue, and the federal government has better things to focus on,” he said, according to Reason criminal justice reporter CJ Ciaramella.
Most Republicans publicly opposed to Sessions’ decision appeared to object to the infringement on states’ rights more than anything else.
“Attorney General Sessions needs to read the Commerce Clause found in Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution that limits the power of the federal government to regulate interstate and not intrastate commerce,” Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO) wrote in a statement. “The decision that was made to legalize marijuana in Colorado was made by the voters of Colorado and only applies within the boundaries of our state. Colorado had every right to legalize marijuana and I will do everything I can to protect that right against the power of an overreaching federal government.”
Sessions has long vowed to crack down on marijuana, claiming in March last year that it was only “slightly less awful than heroin.” During a Senate hearing in April 2016, the then-Alabama senator argued that “good people” did not smoke marijuana, adding, “This drug is dangerous, you cannot play with it, it is not funny, it’s not something to laugh about.”
As the AP noted this week, Trump’s personal views on marijuana are still unclear. He has stated repeatedly in the past, however, that cannabis legalization should be left up to the states and not infringed upon by the federal government.
“I really believe we should leave it up to the states,” he said during a campaign rally in October 2015, according to PolitiFact. “It should be a state situation. […] But I believe that the legalization of marijuana — other than for medical because I think medical, you know I know people that are very, very sick and for whatever reason the marijuana really helps them… but in terms of marijuana and legalization, I think that should be a state issue, state-by-state.”
Trump repeated those sentiments later on the campaign trail.
“I wouldn’t [use federal power to hamper legalization of recreational marijuana], no,” he said during a July 2016 interview with Colorado’s KUSA-TV. “…I think it’s up to the states, yeah. I’m a states person. I think it should be up to the states, absolutely.”