Jeff Sessions is on a crusade to stamp out legal marijuana — but Republicans might not be onboard

Customers shop for marijuana at the MedMen store in West Hollywood, California, on Tuesday.

caption
Customers shop for marijuana at the MedMen store in West Hollywood, California, on Tuesday.
source
Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

  • Attorney General Jeff Sessions will rescind an Obama-era policy, known as the Cole Memo, that has paved a way for legal marijuana in some states.
  • But Republicans are warming to legal weed. A 2016 Gallup poll showed that for the first time, a majority of Republicans support legalizing the drug.
  • During the 2016 Election, support for marijuana legalization initiatives was high in red states that also voted for President Donald Trump.

Tthe US Justice Department announced on Thursday that Attorney General Jeff Sessions will roll back a policy known as the Cole Memo, which allows individual states to decide whether to enforce federal marijuana law in states where the drug has become legal. Federal prosecutors will instead decide how aggressively to crack down on pot growers and sellers in their districts.

The decision – largely a symbolic one – could be unpopular with Republicans.

Support for marijuana reached new highs in 2017. A Gallup poll showed that 64% of Americans support legalizing the drug for both recreational and medical use, the highest support since Gallup first asked the question in 1969. Only 12% of Americans favored legalization that year.

The poll marked another milestone: It’s the first time that a majority of Republican respondents expressed support for marijuana legalization, with 51% indicating that they’d like to see the end of federal prohibition, up nine percentage points from the year before.

The results of the 2016 Election also showed that Republicans are warming to legal weed.

Eight US states voted on marijuana legalization ballot initiatives last November. Five of them -Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Montana, and North Dakota -turned red for President Donald Trump. Of those five, four states also legalized marijuana for recreational or medical use.

“In each case, with the exception of Arkansas, the cannabis initiatives received almost as many or more votes than Trump garnered,” the Marijuana Business Daily reported at the time.

support for marijuana ballot initiatives in red states chart

source
Skye Gould/Business Insider

Eight states and Washington, DC, have now legalized marijuana for recreational use.

On Thursday, Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, who is chairing the National Republican Senatorial Committee during the 2018 cycle, fired back at Sessions. He threatened to withhold Trump’s nominees to the Justice Department if the Cole Memo is not upheld.

In a tweet, Gardner said that repealing the policy “directly contradicts what Attorney General Sessions told me prior to his confirmation.” He added, “With no prior notice to Congress, the Justice Department has trampled on the will of the voters in [Colorado] and other states.”

Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, told a Washington Examiner reporter on Thursday that the “federal government has better things to focus on,” than cracking down on marijuana.

“I continue to believe that this is a states’ rights issue,” Paul added.

The decision to peel back the Cole Memo could lead to federal agents raiding licensed marijuana businesses in states where residents voted to legalize the drug. But because there are no specific guidelines for how the Justice Department will enforce federal law over marijuana growers and sellers, it’s unclear what impact, if any, the repeal will have.