News: CJ Exclusives

Sessions’ new focus on marijuana enforcement may not affect N.C.

Harrison says AG's policy switch will not derail efforts to legalize medicinal marijuana

RALEIGH — U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is cracking down on marijuana use — but the move shouldn’t derail efforts to legalize medical cannabis in North Carolina, Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, told Carolina Journal.

Sessions last week overturned an Obama-era policy that took a hands-off approach to state level cannabis operations. The “Cole Memo,” a document drafted in 2013 by then-Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole, directed all U.S. attorneys to prioritize trafficking, underage possession, and possession or use on federal property, among other things.

The memo put a lower priority on enforcing marijuana prohibition in states with legalized cannabis.

Sessions’ reversal re-established federal enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act.

“This return to the rule of law is also a return of trust and control to federal prosecutors who know where and how to deploy Justice Department resources most effectively to reduce violent crime, stem the tide of the drug crisis, and dismantle criminal gangs,” Sessions’ announcement said.

The attorney general’s decision instantly collided with opposition from Republicans and Democrats. Sessions’ policy will induce chaos in marijuana markets, some experts say. U.S. attorneys would have “unfettered discretion,” and “it’s not clear how those U.S. attorneys would exercise that discretion,” Michael Vitiello, a law expert at the University of the Pacific, said in a recent interview with Time.

Marijuana is legal — in some form — in 29 states and Washington, D.C.

The Schedule I substance is illegal in North Carolina, but CBD oil, a non-psychoactive part of the plant, is allowed to treat specific types of epilepsy in children. Legalizing the rest of the plant just makes sense, said Harrison, who last year helped introduce a bill to legalize medical cannabis in North Carolina.

Harrison is one of a handful of marijuana advocates in the state legislature. While Sessions’ announcement is a big step backward, it will do nothing to stop several state legislators from fighting for medical marijuana, she said.

“We’ve heard from veterans injured in combat, and elderly grandmothers in terrible pain. It seems that this relief ought not to be cut off. I don’t understand why the [U.S.] Department of Justice would divert resources from the real criminal efforts in our society to pursue grandmothers and veterans.”

Eighty percent of North Carolinians support medical marijuana, an Elon University poll from last year shows. Legislators need to catch up, and federal support is key, Harrison said.

Congress dove into the weeds last year when a handful of U.S. senators, including N.C. Republican Thom Tillis, introduced the Marijuana Effective Drug Study Act of 2017. The bill rolls back regulations for marijuana research.

The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 criminalized marijuana. Today, cannabis research is tightly regulated by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Congress can block Sessions’ plan to hamper state marijuana laws, said Jacob Sullum, senior editor for Reason magazine.

First, lawmakers could extend an amendment cutting off funds to enforce federal policies. The law, known as the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment, first passed in 2014, forbids the U.S. DOJ from meddling in state medical marijuana laws.

The amendment expires Jan. 19.

Lawmakers could pass the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act, which says the Controlled Substances Act “shall not apply to any person acting in compliance with state laws relating to the production, possession, distribution, dispensation, administration, or delivery of marijuana.”

A few members of Congress would like to deschedule cannabis and reduce prisons sentences for federal marijuana offenders. Those proposals are ambitious, but less likely to succeed.

Federal prosecutors have used the Constitution’s Commerce Clause — which gives Congress the authority to regulate commercial activity that crosses state lines — to justify going after marijuana users even in states that have ended criminal penalties for simple possession or medicinal use.

A number of libertarian and conservative legal scholars, along with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, have suggested that the feds have no right to use the Commerce Clause to justify prosecuting marijuana possession or use under federal law within states where it’s legal.

Evidence suggests legalized marijuana, particularly medical, yields positive results in other states. Federal lawmakers should take note, Harrison said.

“It seems like the country is headed in that direction. This is a backwards move, but I don’t see it impeding our process. We just need more grassroots support — and pressure on legislators who are reluctant.”

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