Attorney General William Barr came out in favor of letting individual states determine their cannabis policy in an appearance before Congress on April 10, 2019.
While personally supportive of federal prohibition, Barr conceded during a Senate Appropriations hearing regarding the Justice Department’s 2020 budget that the current federal-state conflict over marijuana legalization has become politically untenable.
Stopping short of a full repeal of federal prohibition, Barr’s position is still welcome news to the 34 states where medical marijuana is legal and the ten states where recreational adult-use cannabis is permitted.
A federal framework that works with state law
“I think the way to go is to permit a more federal approach so states can make their own decisions within the framework of the federal law and so we’re not just ignoring the enforcement of federal law,” Barr said.
Barr was responding to a question from Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) on the STATES Act, a piece of bipartisan legislation brought back both to the House and the Senate for consideration earlier this month. The Act would address the current impasse between state and federal law over marijuana.
Acknowledging that he has not yet read the Act in full, he nonetheless told Murkowski that he “would much rather [have]… the approach taken by the STATES Act than where we currently are.”
While far from a full endorsement of federal reform, cannabis advocates expressed their support of Barr’s position.
Addressing the conflict between state and federal law
“We agree wholeheartedly with [Attorney General] Barr—the conflict between federal and state cannabis law has become untenable and must end,” said Neal Levine, CEO of the Cannabis Trade Federation.
Michael Correia, government relations director for the National Cannabis Industry Association, said that he’s “happy to hear that the STATES Act is being considered for comment by the Department of Justice.”
Barr also came out in favor of loosening federal restrictions that have constrained scientific research into cannabis for decades.
There is currently only one federally-approved legal source of cannabis for scientists – a farm at the University of Mississippi that has produced notoriously bad marijuana, lagging far behind the strains and THC content more widely available throughout the U.S.
Cannabis manufacturers have tried for years without success to gain federal authorization to grow and distribute higher-quality product.
In response to Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), Barr said that he has been “pushing very hard over the last few weeks” to expand the program as quickly as possible. “I think we’re going to move forward on it. I think it’s very important to get those additional suppliers,” Barr said.
Schatz then asked Barr for his position on the Cole Memorandum, an Obama-era policy which provided some protection for marijuana states from federal interference. This was rescinded by Jeff Sessions, Barr’s predecessor as Attorney General, in January, 2018.
“I am accepting the Cole Memorandum for now, but I have generally left it up to the US Attorneys in each state to determine what the best approach is in that state. I haven’t heard any complaints from the states that have legalized marijuana,” Barr responded. “I would like to see Congress address this issue,” he added.
Since taking office in February, there has been no announced change in the status of the Cole memo making it unclear whether Barr accepts the policy in principle or its inoperative status.
Barr’s answers are a far cry from the animosity of Session’s towards marijuana legalization, but he is still far from an advocate for cannabis reform. His influence on the issue is also limited compared to the lawmaking powers of Congress.
As Michael Collins, Director of National Affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, puts it, while it’s “positive that DOJ seems willing to engage on marijuana reform,” he is nonetheless “reluctant to value William Barr’s input on marijuana legislation, just as I never valued Jeff Sessions’s input on sentencing reform legislation.”
“Feedback is always welcome, but Congress writes the laws,” Collins said. “The Department Of Justice just enforces them.”