Congress Won't Give Jeff Sessions Money to Fight State Marijuana Laws

Congress has blocked Attorney General Jeff Sessions from getting any new federal funding to crack down on state marijuana laws. Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

Congress won't give Attorney General Jeff Sessions any money to fight a war on state laws to legalize marijuana—at least not in the new budget bill.

A bipartisan group of House Democrats and Republicans agreed Sunday to $1 trillion in government spending to avoid a shutdown and see them through to the end of September.

But while it also gave $1.5 billion more for border security and $12.5 billion for new military spending, there wasn't any money for Sessions to go after states that have legalized medical marijuana and or where the recreational use of the drug is legal.

The move quashes potential plans to try to prevent 44 states, plus Washington D.C. and the territories of Guam and Puerto Rico, "from implementing their own laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana."

The move led pro-legalization advocacy groups and House representatives to urge Congress to amend federal law, removing cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act at a time when support for legalizing marijuana is at an all-time high.

"I reject the idea that America will be a better place if marijuana is sold in every corner store," Sessions said March 15, likening its use to heroin.

"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."

America, he said: "needs to say clearly once again that using drugs will destroy your life."

In 2016 13,000 Americans died of heroin overdoses while a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration fact sheet reports no deaths from the use of marijuana.

Read more: What Jeff Sessions has said about marijuana

Nonetheless, the U.S. Attorney General's office has been reviewing an Obama-era directive that prevents the federal government from interfering in state level marijuana laws.

Marijuana possession is still a federal offence and Sessions had been considering whether he should enforce the federal U.S. Controlled Substances Act against users of the drug, which is ranks higher than cocaine and methamphetamines.

While Sessions said at a Justice Department press briefing in February that states can "pass the laws they choose," he reminded them that it remains "a violation of federal law to distribute marijuana throughout any place in the United States, whether a state legalizes it or not."

Local and state law enforcement have traditionally been relied on to enforce federal law, but in recent instances where city police forces have refused to support Trump's executive orders on immigration, the federal government has tried to sanction them.

Sessions reportedly told Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper's chief of staff last week that he thought Obama's marijuana directive is "not too far from good policy."

That means it is time to " amend federal law in a manner that comports with the available science, public opinion, and with America's rapidly changing cultural and legal landscape," said Justin Strekal, Political Director at The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) in a statement May 1.

A recent poll by CBS News released April 20 found a 71 percent majority of Americans opposed federal action to stop marijuana sales in states where the drug had been legalized. In all, it found 61 percent of Americans want marijuana to be legalized—a five percentage point increase from the year before and the highest level of support recorded by the poll.

Republicans , known for hardline drug policies, have begun to support legalization too. Last July a poll showed 45 percent of Republicans support legalization measures. Less than a year before the same poll found 50 percent of Republicans opposed them.

"The people have spoken @realDonaldTrump. Don't let Jeff Sessions' draconian views on [marijuana] run roughshod over states," wrote Trump campaign adviser Roger Stone on Twitter using the "420" code for pot on April 20.

Marijuana, both legal and medicinal, is projected to pull in $7.1 billion in profits in 2016, according to one study. But while the new spending bill gives medical marijuana patients and the businesses that support them "a measure of certainty," said Oregon House Representative Earl Blumenauer in a statement Monday, the annual challenge of blocking federal action against state marijuana laws "must end."

"We need permanent protections for state-legal medical marijuana programs, as well as adult-use," he said.

The best way to achieve this is "removing cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act," said Strekal, "so that states possess the flexibility to engage in their own marijuana regulatory policies how best they see fit."

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