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(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

legalization | 01.01.2022

Attorney General Jeff Sessions takes heat from his own party on marijuana

It’s a matter of states’ rights, they say.

Last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions got a little more pushback than he might have expected when he rescinded the Obama-era protections for legal marijuana states known as the Cole Memo. The response came from all sides of the political spectrum and the message was a resounding, “Why, Jeff, why?!” Whether it was supporters of legalization who claim the AG is out of touch or fellow members of the GOP who were hoping to avoid this kind of a political headache, the critics came crawling out of the woodwork.

“We’ll give Jeff Sessions our legal pot when he pries it from our warm, extremely interesting to look at hands,” Colorado Democrats tweeted shortly after the announcement was made.

The Cole Memo, drafted in 2013 by Deputy-Attorney General James Cole, protected the recreational marijuana industry in legal states from prosecution under federal law which still lists marijuana as illegal.

As a memorandum, the Cole Memo was more of a recommendation for how the Department of Justice should act. But for the most part, according to the Cole Memo, the DOJ would not go after marijuana businesses so long as they operated within a legal state and followed regulations.

Among the strongest critics to speak out against Sessions decision to rescind the Cole Memo was Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey.

“This unjust, backwards decision is wrong for America, and will prove to be on the wrong side of history,” Booker said, emphasizing that the war on drugs is a waste of money and the lives of those who are incarcerated. The senator is currently fighting for the complete opposite of prohibition, having introduced a bill which would legalize marijuana nationwide and expunge the records of those convicted of marijuana-related crimes. Under such a bill, the Cole Memo would not be necessary.

But Booker is just the kind of person you might expect to oppose Sessions. What’s more surprising is the pushback the AG got from his own party for rescinding the Cole Memo. In California, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, co-sponsor of the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment protecting medical marijuana states from prosecution, took to the morning news shows to vent calling Sessions’ announcement “an extravagant holiday gift to the drug cartels”

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Dana Rohrabacher (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“By attacking the will of the American people, who overwhelmingly favor marijuana legalization,” Rohrabacher said, “He is doing the bidding of an out-of-date law enforcement establishment that wants to wage a perpetual weed war and seize private citizens’ property in order to finance its backward ambitions.”

Data shows the tide has truly shifted toward full legalization and away from the position of Sessions. In a Gallup poll from October 2017, Americans set a new record with an overall 64 percent of the population across both parties in favor of marijuana legalization. For the first time in history, even Republicans support legalization at 51 percent.

It’s a pattern that’s also being reflected in Congress and among Sessions’ old Senate colleagues. After the DOJ’s Cole Memo announcement, Republican Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado promised to block the departments remaining nominees, claiming that Sessions had gone back on his word.

“I will be putting a hold on every single nomination from the Department of Justice until Attorney General Jeff Sessions lives up to the commitment he made to me in my pre-confirmation meeting with him,” Gardner said on the Senate floor. “The conversation we had that was specifically about this issue of states’ rights in Colorado.”

For many Republicans who spoke up after the Cole Memo was reversed, the core issue seemed to be state’s rights. While it’s unclear whether they all believe marijuana should be legal, it was clear they all believed that the states should be allowed to choose for themselves. It’s a position that was even put forward by President Trump on multiple occasions during the campaign.

“I really believe we should leave it up to the states,” candidate Trump said at a rally in the Fall of 2015. “I know people that are very, very sick and for whatever reason the marijuana really helps them…”

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