Attorney General nominee William Barr has confirmed in writing the comments he made during his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing that he would not crack down on state-legal cannabis.
Barr reiterated that public testimony in a subsequent series of written responses to senators' questions.
“As discussed at my hearing, I do not intend to go after parties who have complied with state law in reliance on the Cole Memorandum,” Barr said in reference to the Obama-era memo meant to prevent federal prosecutors from going after state-legal cannabis operations. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the memo in January 2018.
At his confirmation hearing held in January 2019, Barr told Democratic New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker that Sessions had made a mistake in rescinding the Cole Memo. Sessions' reversal allowed federal prosecutors to enforce federal cannabis laws even in states that legalized medical or adult-use marijuana.
What could the new stance mean for cannabis?
According to David Holland, executive and legal director of Empire State National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), it means a lot.
“First, [Attorney General nominee Barr] identifies the nullification crisis that exists in America where the Federal Controlled Substances Act is actively being negated by the 33 states that have passed medical and adult-use legislation in their territories,” Holland told Weedmaps News.
“Is the attorney general supposed to invalidate all those state laws and penalize the industries built around them in compliance and good faith?” asked Holland, who has argued in court that aspect of the country's contradictory cannabis laws for over a decade.
Holland said that even more significant was Barr's statement that the solution to this crisis is not administrative.
“In the end, Barr intimates that the fate of legalized cannabis is a political question and not a question of science. He makes clear that the issue needs to be resolved by Congress as there really is no rational or viable defense of the FDA's continuing Schedule I designation,” Holland said.
In a day of Congressional testimony on Jan. 15, 2019, Barr said that Congress should decide whether federal law would be changed or followed. He called the current system “a backdoor nullification of federal law. If we want a federal approach, if we want states to have their own laws, then let's get there and get there in the right way.”
Holland found Barr's statements very significant.
“Barr is calling for Congress to take immediate action to either pre-empt all the state legalization laws or deschedule marijuana and make it a state's rights issue pursuant to the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” Holland said.
Despite Barr's anti-legalization stance, Holland said that “given his deference to continue with a hands-off approach, I suspect he will push Congress to remove cannabis from the Federal Controlled Substances Act once and for all.”
Barr also indicated in his written remarks that as attorney general, he would to seek approval for more legal growers of cannabis for research purposes and would acknowledge that the recently approved 2018 Farm Bill, which legalized hemp, has broad implications for the sale of cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabis-derived products.
This is music to cannabis researchers' ears.
“Researchers across the nation would certainly welcome additional marijuana manufacturers if the product they produced could be used in research protocols,” said Dan Nordquist, associate vice president of Washington State University's Office of Research Support and Operations.
“More importantly, our researchers would like to see the administrative burden to obtain, manage, and secure federally grown marijuana significantly reduced,” Nordquist told Weedmaps News. Currently, research proposals are a multi-step procedure that requires state and federal reviews and approvals.