Attorney General Jeff Sessions seems determined to revive the failed war on drugs by targeting medical marijuana, despite bipartisan opposition in Congress and the widespread popularity of medical cannabis among the American public. Fortunately, Congress is pushing back.
Marijuana use and possession for medical purposes is now legal in 29 states and the District of Columbia. But it remains illegal under federal law, setting up a conflict that, until now, has been settled by the U.S. Justice Department taking a hands-off approach on the issue as long as local authorities take action to stem black-market sales.
An amendment to the Justice Department appropriations bill known as the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment has since 2014 prohibited the department from spending federal funds to stop states from implementing medical marijuana programs legalized under state law. The amendment must be reauthorized each fiscal year. In a letter made public this week, Sessions asked Congress not to renew the amendment, but Congress refused.
In the letter, Sessions said taking action to enforce federal marijuana laws was essential to address the "historic drug epidemic" and rising levels of violence. But the drug epidemic that is causing the most concern these days is the explosion of opioid addiction, which kills people with accidental overdoses.
In fact, research indicates that states where medical marijuana is legalized may see a decrease in opioid use and overdose deaths. The National Institute on Drug Abuse acknowledges that preliminary findings suggest this is true, and that states with medical marijuana dispensaries may see fewer opioids prescribed for pain.
Public opinion polls show Americans overwhelmingly support legalization of marijuana for medical use, and most say federal authorities should not enforce federal marijuana laws in states that have legalized the drug.
Sessions' insistence on cracking down on marijuana contradicts the traditional stance of conservative Republicans who oppose federal government action against states. What's more, President Donald Trump promised during the campaign that he would not crack down on states over medical marijuana. But the president issued a signing statement along with his approval of the Justice Department spending bill indicating that he might reconsider that stance.
For now, the Rohrabacher Amendment is in place through Sept. 30, and its co-author, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., told the Orange County Register that he doesn't think Trump will try to circumvent it.
Meanwhile, others in Congress plan to re-introduce separate legislation to protect medical marijuana in states that have legalized it. Among other things, the CARERS Act would remove some barriers to marijuana research and allow Veterans Health Administration doctors to recommend medical marijuana in states where it is legal.
Oregon has had legal medical marijuana for two decades. While some supporters fear the new administration will seek to enforce federal law here, medical marijuana has support in Congress, and President Trump isn't likely to push for a punitive policy that would be deeply unpopular with the public.