President Obama announced his nomination of Loretta Lynch to be the next U.S. attorney general in a Saturday press conference.
If confirmed, Lynch would replace Eric Holder, who has overseen sweeping criminal justice reforms and led Justice Department efforts to allow marijuana legalization laws in Colorado and Washington State to be implemented mostly free of federal interference.
Lynch, currently the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, has been largely silent about marijuana laws and the larger war on drugs, but she’ll certainly have to deal with these issues in light of Tuesday’s votes to legalize marijuana in two additional states and the District of Columbia. Reform advocates expect that she’ll be asked to detail her views during her confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“That is clearly going to be a major issue,” said Mike Liszewski, government affairs director for Americans for Safe Access, in an email to Marijuana.com. “When Eric Holder took office less than six years ago, barely a quarter of the U.S. had medical marijuana laws, now it’s nearly half the country and growing. The next A.G. will need to clearly state if DOJ will keep moving in the right direction by finally putting an end to the federal raids and prosecutions of state compliant medical providers, and ultimately whether she will reclassify marijuana out of Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act.”
While Lynch hasn’t specifically addressed efforts to reform marijuana laws, she has overseen some high-profile marijuana cases.
In one, her office handled the prosecution of Andrea Sanderlin of Scarsdale, NY. Dubbed the “pot mom” by the media, she was accused of running a $3 million illegal marijuana business out of a warehouse in Queens.
When the indictment was announced in June 2013, Lynch said in a press release that “Sanderlin could have focused her talents on building a legitimate business enterprise to support her family and serve as a role model for her children. Instead, she allegedly chose to inhabit the shadowy underworld of large-scale drug dealers, using drug proceeds to maintain her family’s façade of upper middle class stability.”
“Those who use our neighborhoods to grow and introduce illegal drugs into the community will face the full force of the law,” Lynch said.
The fact that she brought cases against people who broke marijuana laws as a prosecutor, however, says very little about what her approach to managing the state-federal conflict on marijuana laws would be as attorney general.
“The Department of Justice is by no means simply an organization of prosecutors,” said Eric Sterling, head of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. “In the case of drugs, it is first a regulatory agency. After making regulatory decisions, then it is an investigative and prosecutorial agency.”
“Prosecutors must avoid responding to public clamor for an indictment in a notorious case, and must rely strictly on the quality of the evidence the investigation has produced,” Sterling wrote in an email to Marijuana.com. “A policy maker, by contrast, needs to consider public opinion, and considerations that are very much ‘political’ in the sense that the Supreme Court uses the term. The policy making of the attorney general is carried out in a world of partisan conflict, and an attorney general, to be effective as a policy maker, ought to have a highly developed sense of how to navigate the partisan battlefield, i.e, Washington, D.C., to accomplish her or his policy objectives.”
And reform advocates are hoping that Lynch will recognize that the political winds very much favor marijuana law reform.
While she “has no real public record on the issue of marijuana law reform, I hope she will seriously consider and implement the current opinion held by a majority of American citizens who believe that marijuana prohibition is a failed policy,” Erik Altieri, communications director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, told Marijuana.com.
Even though Lynch hasn’t yet publicly talked about how she thinks the federal government should react to state marijuana legalization laws, she has made a handful of on-the-record comments about the overall drug war and related issues.
In a 2001 appearance on the PBS NewHour, for example, she said, “I do think that there were a lot of issues that went on with the war on drugs — its inception and the way it was carried out.”
She went on to criticize the “disparate way” drug penalties are set and prosecutions are carried out, specifically singling out how “crack cocaine is treated within the criminal system,” which “has had a huge collateral consequence in the minority community.”
“I think we’re at a point now frankly where we have had these policies in effect for several years — not just the crack-cocaine policy but the sentencing policies, we have the opportunity to look at what are the effects of these long-term sentences upon narcotics offenders and all offenders,” she said. “We can look at the effects of people when they come out of incarceration and back into the community. And I think law enforcement has always got to be able to examine itself and review these policies and see, are they really effective?”
The 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine that Lynch seemed to have been criticizing in 2001 was brought down to an 18-to-1 disparity under a reform bill signed into law by President Obama in 2010.
At a February 2013 event at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, Lynch said, “Arresting more people or building more jails is not the ultimate solution to crime in our society. If there’s one thing we’ve learned it is that there is no one solution.”
At the same event, she seemed to criticize the NYPD’s “Stop and Frisk” policy. “I think it can be used and it can be misused,” she said. “It’s a tool, just like anything else. It depends on who’s using it. I think there’s a tendency in law enforcement that when something works, to put all the resources behind it. Sometimes there’s a lot of thought, and sometimes there’s not.”
Lynch’s past comments indicate an openness to criminal justice reform and, in light of Eric Holder’s legacy of making such reforms a priority for the Obama Justice Department, it’s probable that these issues were discussed with her prior to the president selecting her as the nominee.
But for now it’s still unclear to what extent she’ll be a champion for reform in the way Holder was, and whether or not she’ll continue the Department’s mostly hands-off policy on state marijuana laws. Her upcoming confirmation hearings are likely to shed some light.