Eleven members of the House Judiciary Committee are demanding a hearing into the decision by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to roll back an Obama-era policy on marijuana enforcement, according to a letter obtained Monday.
The letter, signed by 11 Democrats, calls for Chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia, to hold a hearing of the full House Judiciary Committee to discuss the recent move by Sessions, which gives federal prosecutors more leeway to launch marijuana cases in states that have legalized the drug for medical and recreational use.
The Democrats said they fear the new Justice Department policy “will promote an inefficient use of limited taxpayer resources and subvert the will of voters who have clearly indicated a preference for legalized marijuana in their states.”
“The costs of pursuing this misguided policy both in terms of prosecution and in lives blighted by unnecessary criminal convictions are staggering, cruel and unwarranted,” said Rep. Steve Cohen, a Democrat from Tennessee who signed the letter. He added, “As I told Jeff Sessions when he appeared before the Judiciary Committee, prosecution of marijuana has an opportunity cost, namely that resources wasted on marijuana cases aren’t being used to prosecute opioid sellers, and crack, meth and heroin dealers.”
A spokesperson for Goodlatte did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Goodlatte is a conservative who has opposed marijuana legalization in the past.
Sessions announced the marijuana policy change on Jan. 4 with a memo to U.S. Attorneys across the country that said “marijuana is a dangerous drug”and “marijuana activity is a serious crime.” The memo specifically mentioned the possibility of marijuana-related prosecutions for money laundering and illegal banking.
Previously, under guidance known as the Cole Memo, federal prosecutors were instructed to file marijuana charges only in cases where the defendants had violated state and federal law, usually by shipping weed across state lines. Session essentially told his U.S. Attorneys that they are now free to go after state-legal weed whenever they see fit, and several prosecutors have already signaled an intent to crack down.
The House Judiciary Committee oversees issues related to the federal justice system, including federal law enforcement entities, and could pressure Sessions to reverse or amend his decision. In their letter to Goodlatte, the Democrats said Sessions had failed “to provide any evidence that prosecuting marijuana in states where it has been legalized will make Americans safer. They also called for the Justice Department to “instead pursue enforcement strategies that are sensible, effective, and enhance public safety.”
Several Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee either come from states with legal marijuana or have expressed support for legalization. Rep. Ted Lieu, a Democrat from California who signed the letter, cited bipartisan support as a reason for holding a hearing. He said the Democrats reached out across the aisle when drafting the letter, but Republicans chose instead to send their own letter expressing their concerns directly to President Trump, who promised on the campaign trail to respect state decisions on marijuana.
“It’s important for the American people to understand why Attorney General Sessions reversed this very simple policy of letting states go ahead and honor the wishes of their residents in terms of legalizing marijuana and to understand the rationale for doing this,” Lieu said. “I’d like to get on the record why Attorney General Sessions believes what he believes.”
Even if Goodlatte ignores the letter and refuses to hold a hearing, there are other efforts underway to push back against the move by Sessions, including a bill that would block federal law enforcement from targeting state-legal marijuana businesses and a potential lawsuit from Washington state’s attorney general.
Here’s the full text of the letter:
Dear Chairman Goodlatte:
We are deeply concerned by the recent action by Attorney General Sessions rescinding Department of Justice (DOJ) marijuana enforcement guidance issued during the Obama Administration. We write to request a hearing of the full Judiciary Committee regarding this decision.
On January 4, 2018, Attorney General Sessions issued a memorandum to U.S. Attorneys eliminating marijuana enforcement priorities set forth under President Obama. Previous memoranda issued during the Obama Administration, such as the memorandum issued in 2013 by then Deputy Attorney General James Cole (Cole Memo), made clear the considerations the federal government should use when deciding to prosecute violations of the Controlled Substances Act related to marijuana. Rather than targeting individuals in states that had legalized marijuana and consequently set up complex regulatory systems, the government focused on priorities that were significant to the federal government. These included preventing gangs and cartels from profiting from marijuana sales and ensuring that state-authorized marijuana was not used to hide other illegal activities.
We fear that the elimination of the Obama Administration’s marijuana enforcement guidance will promote an inefficient use of limited taxpayer resources and subvert the will of voters who have clearly indicated a preference for legalized marijuana in their states. Further, the January 4 memorandum by Attorney General Sessions fails to provide any evidence that prosecuting marijuana in states where it has been legalized will make Americans safer. DOJ should instead pursue enforcement strategies that are sensible, effective, and enhance public safety, and the Judiciary Committee should be included in these discussions.
The Judiciary Committee has a fundamental duty to conduct oversight on the Department of Justice. It is critical that the members of our committee have an opportunity to ask questions about this recent rescission in a formal setting and evaluate potential legislation related to marijuana. Therefore, we respectfully request a hearing by the full Committee on these issues.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler
Rep. Ted Lieu
Rep. Shelia Jackson Lee
Rep. Pramila Jayapal
Rep. Steve Cohen
Rep. David Cicilline
Rep. Zoe Lofgren
Rep. Jamie Raskin
Rep. Eric Swalwell
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries
Rep. Hank Johnson
Cover: Attorney General Jeff Sessions, speaks during a summit to discuss efforts to combat human trafficking, at the Justice Department, on February 2, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)