Sessions Concedes Marijuana Not as Dangerous as Heroin, but Still Illegal

Jeff Sessions
Attorney General Jeff Sessions arrives to testify before the Senate intelligence committee on June 13. Win McNamee/Getty

While Attorney General Jeff Sessions may have been persuaded that marijuana is not as dangerous as heroin, those harboring hopes for federal concessions on weed legalization shouldn't bank on his support.

Speaking at a congressional hearing on Tuesday, Sessions stated that the Obama-era guidelines on cannabis remain intact, meaning the drug is illegal on the federal level even though a number of states have voted to legalize it for recreational use.

"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," Forbes reported Sessions as saying, referring to previous attorneys general and their policy.

Sessions has long been an opponent of marijuana legalization, previously equating smoking weed with taking heroin. He stated in March that he did not back the "fashionable" view on weed legalization.

"I realize this may be an unfashionable belief in a time of growing tolerance of drug use. But too many lives are at stake to worry about being fashionable," he said in a speech on combating crime.

"I reject the idea that America will be a better place if marijuana is sold in every corner store. And 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. Our nation needs to say clearly once again that using drugs will destroy your life," he added.

Marijuana is currently classified as a Schedule One drug, which puts it under the same classification as dangerous drugs and substances such as heroin, cocaine, meth and fentanyl; however, medical marijuana is legal in 29 states and Washington, D.C., while recreational marijuana is legal in eight states and D.C., despite being prohibited on a federal level.

Sessions's Tuesday concession on weed not being as bad a heroin does not signal a U-turn in existing policy, though he also agreed "we are bound by" the rider that prevents the federal government from getting involved in state marijuana laws.

This statement alone is a slight shift from a memo sent out earlier in the year that suggested a review of the "Cole Memo," which outlines how states can remain clear of federal involvement in their cannabis rules.

"Task Force subcommittees will also undertake a review of existing policies in the areas of charging, sentencing and marijuana to ensure consistency with the Department's overall strategy on reducing violent crime and with the Administration's goals and priorities," the memo from Sessions read.

During the hearing, Sessions did not mention possible reviews of Obama-era policy, which means the state and federal views on marijuana will remain at odds.