Five months after President Obama’s nomination, the Senate confirmed Loretta Lynch as the new U.S. Attorney General this past Thursday (April 25, 2015) to replace outgoing AG Eric Holder. As the nation’s top law enforcement official, a new attorney general can mean big changes in how the country’s laws are viewed and enforced. With the current flurry of new state legislation on marijuana that contradict federal laws, the stance Lynch takes on the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) role in the matter will have profound implications for the legalization movement.
Like President Obama, Attorney General Holder been unusually candid in his views about marijuana. Under Holder, the DOJ sent out a memo stating that enforcing federal marijuana laws against those in compliance with state laws would not be a priority of the DOJ. And while there are still federal prosecutions happening in marijuana legal states, he has, for the most part, allowed the states to set their own laws in this area without much interference.
Being an Obama nominee, one would think Lynch would share the President’s views on the subject of marijuana legalization, and that the DOJ under its new AG would continue in its quasi hands-off practice or perhaps even consider removing marijuana from its Schedule 1 classification. Holder has, in the past, expressed an openness to such a possibility. Based on Lynch’s Senate Confirmation Hearing testimony, there may be cause for some concern to marijuana advocates.
When she was asked if she agreed with the memo and it’s stated practice, the new AG did not give a direct answer but expressed concern about a host of items with regards to state marijuana laws and the DOJ’s role:
“The deputy’s policy still requires federal prosecutors to seek prosecution of marijuana cases in cases where children are at risk and where marijuana crosses state lines, particularly where it is being trafficked from a state that has chosen a legal framework into a state that has not chosen a legal framework and those driving under the influence of this. A great concern certainly within the department and those of us who are looking at these issues is the availability of the edible products and the risk of those falling into the hands of children and causing great harm there.”
When asked if marijuana was illegal under federal law, Lynch stated:
“It is still the policy of the administration and my policy if confirmed as attorney general to continue to enforce the marijuana laws particularly with the money laundering aspect where we see the evidence that marijuana laws brings with it not only organized crime activity but great levels of violence.”
On day 3 of the Attorney General Senate Confirmation Hearing, Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama) asked the incoming AG if she supports legalization of marijuana. She did not hesitate and gave a direct answer.
“Senator, I do not.”
She was then asked about President Obama’s statement that he viewed marijuana as being no more dangerous than alcohol. Lynch replies by stating that she disagrees with the president’s views on marijuana as a substance.
Well, senator, i certainly don’t hold that view and don’t agree with that view of marijuana as a substance. I certainly think that the president was speaking from his personal experience and personal opinion, neither of which i’m able to share. But i can tell you that not only do i not support legalization of marijuana, it is not the position of the department of justice currently to support the legalization nor would it be the position should i become confirmed as attorney general.
The recent coverage of Michele Leonhart’s resignation as the head of the DEA often pointed to the fact that Leonhart criticized President Obama for the same statement on which Lynch was asked. While the new AG’s reply can’t be considered a criticism, she had no reservations about disagreeing with the president’s position on the issue of marijuana and alcohol.
No one is expecting immediate sweeping changes in DOJ’s handling of marijuana with new AG Lynch. The question will be how receptive she will be to the continuing loosening of state laws on both medical and recreational marijuana, as well as her input on a replacement for the DEA.
There is also the matter of the recently introduced CARERS Act currently working its way through the U.S. Senate. If passed into law, it would completely alter the extent of the DOJ’s authority on marijuana.
U.S. Attorney General Senate Confirmation Hearing (January 2015): Loretta Lynch Answers Questions About Marijuana Legalization
The following is video of Attorney General Confirmation Hearing, Day 1, Part 1 (January 28, 2015) in which she addresses questions posed by Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) regarding her views on marijuana and the federal prohibition on it.
The section of Attorney General Confirmation Hearing, Day 1, Part 3 where the new AG Lynch states directly, in response to Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama), she does not support legalization of marijuana and disagrees with President Obama that marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol. This short clip is the most revealing about her position on marijuana.
One thing to keep in mind about the questions is that they were posed by Republican senators who oppose marijuana legalization. Their questions were no doubt asked in such a way as to further their opposition.