Bill Barr, President Donald Trump’s nominee for US attorney general, told the Senate on Tuesday he would not bust marijuana businesses that abide by state legalization laws.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate to upset those interests,” Barr told the Senate Judiciary Committee in a confirmation hearing, citing a policy of tolerance toward marijuana established under the Obama administration.
A 2013 memo by former deputy attorney general James Cole placed a low priority on licensed businesses that stuck to a set of guidelines — like stopping pot from crossing state lines, funding cartels, or falling into the hands of minors — in states with legalization laws.
“I’m not going to go after companies that have relied on the Cole memoranda,” Barr told Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, making a nod to the multibillion-dollar industry in states that have legalized systems that sell the drug like alcohol.
“My approach to this would be not to upset settled expectations and the reliance interest that have arisen as a result of the Cole memoranda and investments have been made,” he added.
His position is a stark reversal from that of former attorney general Jeff Sessions, who rescinded the Cole memo in January 2018 and made numerous menacing gestures toward states with pot businesses.
Still, Barr nodded to the widening chasm between an expanding, aboveboard industry and federal laws that ostensibly prohibit it from existing.
Although Barr thinks marijuana should remain illegal, he said it was “untenable” to maintain a system where 10 states have legalized marijuana for adult recreational use — nine of which license businesses — while it remains federally prohibited.
“We either should have a federal law that prohibits marijuana everywhere, which I would support myself because I think it’s a mistake to back off on marijuana,” he said. “However, if we want a federal approach, if we want states to have their own laws, let’s get there and get there the right way.”
“It’s almost like a backdoor nullification of federal law,” he said. “To me, it’s a binary choice.”
Sen. Kamala Harris of California, whose state legalized marijuana in 2016, followed up to confirm that Barr does “not intend to use the limited federal resources at your disposal to enforce federal marijuana laws in those states or in the District of Columbia that have legalized marijuana.”
“That’s right,” he replied. “It’s incumbent on the Congress to make a decision as to whether we are going to have a federal system or whether it’s going to be a central federal law.”
Michael Collins, the national affairs director of the Drug Policy Alliance, an advocacy group, called the comments “a welcome development, and a clear break with [Barr’s] predecessor. He should now commit his Department to working with Congress on a solution to the state v. federal conflict, so that we can reform our outdated marijuana laws in a way that is consistent with racial justice values.”