Congress

Vote on attorney general nominee is ‘make or break’ for pot legalization, backers say

Workers remove stems and leaves from newly harvested marijuana plants at Los Suenos Farms in Avondale, Colo. President-elect Donald Trump's nomination of Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama to be the next attorney general has raised fears that the new administration might crack down on marijuana businesses in states such as Colorado, Washington and California, where the sale of cannabis is legal.
Workers remove stems and leaves from newly harvested marijuana plants at Los Suenos Farms in Avondale, Colo. President-elect Donald Trump's nomination of Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama to be the next attorney general has raised fears that the new administration might crack down on marijuana businesses in states such as Colorado, Washington and California, where the sale of cannabis is legal. AP

Backers of marijuana legalization on Monday stepped up their pressure on the U.S. Senate to block the confirmation of Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions as the next attorney general.

Sessions, a staunch opponent of legalization, angered proponents in April when he called pot “dangerous” and said that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.”

Marijuana backers want the issue aired Tuesday when the Senate Judiciary Committee begins Sessions’ confirmation hearing.

“It’s a national thing: This hearing is make or break for the marijuana folks,” said Adam Eidinger, who heads a pro-legalization group in Washington, D.C., called DCMJ.

The hearing comes amid an explosion of support for legal marijuana in the past year, with nearly a quarter of all Americans now living in states that allow use of the drug for recreation.

Marijuana won big in the Nov. 8 election, with voters passing ballot measures to ease marijuana restrictions in eight of nine states, including California.

As a result, eight states now have approved recreational marijuana, led by Washington and Colorado, where legalization plans first passed in 2012. Twenty-eight states allow the drug to be used as medicine.

Marijuana backers are confident that more states will follow suit, with the most recent Gallup poll showing a record high 60 percent backing legalization.

As a candidate, President-elect Donald Trump said he would leave the question of legalization to the states, following the lead of President Barack Obama.

But Trump’s selection of Sessions has many marijuana advocates worried, given the senator’s long history of opposition to any form of legalization.

In a speech on the Senate floor last year, Sessions criticized Obama as not tough enough on marijuana, saying the U.S. could be at the beginning of “another surge in drug use like we saw in the ’60s and ’70s.”

“You have to have leadership from Washington,” Sessions said. “You can’t have the president of the United States of America talking about marijuana like it is no different than taking a drink. . . . It is different. And you are sending a message to young people that there is no danger in this process. It is false that marijuana use doesn’t lead people to more drug use. It is already causing a disturbance in the states that have made it legal. I think we need to be careful about this.”

Erik Altieri, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said Sessions’ views “are out of step with mainstream America” and in conflict with many state laws.

“We must demand that senators on the Judiciary Committee ask this nominee whether he intends to respect the will of the voters in these states and whether he truly believes that no ‘good people’ have ever smoked pot,” he said. “If he truly believes such outdated ‘Reefer Madness’ rhetoric, then he should not be the next attorney general.”

The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws called Monday “a day of action,” encouraging its backers to begin “flooding their senators’ phone lines” to demand a “no” vote on Sessions unless he agreed to respect state laws that allow for the sale and use of marijuana.

Eidinger said Sessions would be getting “a crash course in civil disobedience this month.” He said he and other legalization backers planned to line up at 4:20 a.m. (420 is code for marijuana) to reserve seats for the Judiciary Committee hearing.

“We’re going to be the first people in. We’re going to be front and center,” Eidinger said. “We want the senators to see us sitting there, wearing red shirts that say, ‘Great Americans Use Cannabis.’ And we want the senators to ask him: ‘What do you mean when you say good Americans don’t use cannabis?’ We want the senators to do their jobs.”

Eidinger’s group is making plans to hand out 4,200 joints at Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20 with hopes of pressuring the new administration to back legalization.

While no one’s certain exactly what Sessions would do as attorney general, his nomination is regarded as good news for opponents of legalization.

When Trump nominated Sessions shortly after the election, Kevin Sabet, president of the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said that “things are about to get interesting.”

“Well, let’s just say that if I had marijuana stocks right now, I’d be shorting them,” Sabet said.

A federal crackdown is likely to increase tensions between the federal government and states where marijuana sales have become a dependable source of tax revenue, according to lawyers contemplating the upcoming transition in a webinar Monday sponsored by the law firm of Dorsey & Whitney. Sessions could impose a range of pressures, from tighter banking regulations to raids on businesses.

“Not necessarily storefronts selling weed legally, but legal growers, licensed and inspected by the state, potentially run by government entities essentially operating in violation of federal law,” said B. Todd Jones, the National Football League’s senior vice president and special counsel for conduct. “Are you going to have DEA raids? Conflict between state and federal governments?”

Hannah Allam contributed to this report.

Rob Hotakainen: 202-383-6154, @HotakainenRob

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