How Will Obama’s New A.G. Handle Marijuana? | Marijuana

How Will Obama’s New A.G. Handle Marijuana?

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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.

About Author

Tom Angell covers policy and politics for Marijuana.com. Separately, he serves as chairman of the nonprofit organization Marijuana Majority, which works to ensure that elected officials and the media treat legalization as a serious, mainstream issue. Marijuana Majority led the effort to get the U.S. Conference of Mayors to pass a resolution telling the federal government to respect state marijuana laws, and orchestrated the first-ever endorsement for marijuana legalization by a U.S. Supreme Court justice (John Paul Stevens). Previously, Tom worked for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and Students for Sensible Drug Policy. (All organizations are listed for identification purposes only.)

13 Comments

  1. Marijuana policy will be the determining force in 2016 presidential elections. The young folk will carry to victory any candidate honest enough to represent our righteous cause. You want to know how Rand Paul could win, well do you? He could Just promise to end the War against Marijuana, return hemp classification to what it was during the Revolution, essential to our National Defense, and he will win and win Big…

    • Gary Johnson(L) is running again… He has my vote and anyone elses that knows his platform on MJ among other important issues!

  2. For every American behind bars, for a non-violent marijuana related offense, the federal government is guilty of wrongful prosecution, and they know it. When you study how the Nixon policy of scheduling against what his medical adviser Dr. Egeberg who was bullied into only a temporary classification #1 and discarded 700 pages of his own commissioned Shafer report. This was all about getting back at his enemies.

  3. Now
    that Washington, D.C. has legalized for recreational purposes (they
    were already legal for medical) it can’t be very long ’til SCOTUS rules
    it legal nationwide. In D.C. you can get caught walking around near the
    White House and as long as you have NO MORE than 2 ounces (56 grams) of
    fresh sticky bud in your pocket the police will just tell you to keep
    moving along… LoL.

    • Not 100% sure, but I think if you’re within the vicinity of the White House, you’re under federal jurisdiction and you could still get arrested.

      • Well, that and they haven’t implemented the law yet. After the law is drafted it has to go sit in congress for 30-60 days to be considered. I predict ill go undressed for 59 days and then struck down but I’m a pessimist like that. We have to let these politicians know that if they want to work for us they have to start getting in line.

        • They can’t strike down a law which passed with 70% of the vote without incurring some major blowback as to whether our votes actually count for anything. It’s something that would draw attention around the world as to whether we’re a democracy or not. It would certainly set up a major battle in 2016 and it would be a lot less about marijuana reform and a lot more about firing lots of politicians, like they’ve never seen before. Telling people they can’t have pot is one thing, but tell them they aren’t free anymore and that’s an entirely different issue. A gigantic issue.

          • Right now there is a lot of momentum behind our movement but there are some members of congress who are rabid with reefer madness and it’s a new day in congress. God I hope your right though. I have a house in Virginia. DC is only like 3.5-4 hours away

  4. “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.” This bill let thousands of crack dealers out of prison. Why not let out marijuana offenders?

  5. I’m just hoping that she maintains the current policy that Eric Holder put in place. Hands-off the territories that are legalizing, same way we ended alcohol prohibition. Although, at this point it really doesn’t matter who’s the AG. The Feds don’t have the manpower or the resources to enforce drug laws at the state level anyway. They never did.

  6. I care not whether it’s accomplished by the AG, the POTUS, the SCOTUS or a bloody revolution:

    Cannabis shall be removed from CSA “Schedule I”, and placed in “CSA Subchapter I, Part A, §802. Definitions, paragraph (6)”, appended to the list “distilled spirits, wine, malt beverages, or tobacco”, where it will STILL be the least-toxic in the category [by several orders of magnitude].

    In other words, EXEMPT from CSA scheduling.

    Anything short of THAT is absolutely UNACCEPTABLE.

  7. I find it hard to believe that the administration would have taken us this far down the road of reform, just to turn it over to an anti reform AG. She has to be careful at this point what she says, because anything she says will be used against her during the confirmation hearing. On the other hand, Mitch McConnell has just invested in the hemp industry in his state and I’m confident that he doesn’t want that to come to a screeching halt. Who knows, the conservatives might be hoping that she’s pro reform also. Generally speaking, when they see the potential of money, that usually changes their entire outlook on things.

  8. Whyiowa4medical on

    Yes, an AG ruling would be easier by far, but better, don’t make me laugh!!! All Board of Pharmacy members recommend a classification of Schedule II (C-II). Now, if this is done all the peasants may cheer on night one. A classification of C-II would put cannabis under the prevue of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (the BNDD license a doctor carries to prescribe morphine and amphetamines). Everyone would wish for the DEA back acting alone. Let me show you one simple reason why: Crack Cocaine is a C-II, and I can promise that even so, no pharmacy carries it, no doctor prescribes it, and even powder cocaine is under the Ft. Knox security of a hospital pharmacy and is generally weakened far below 7%. States that are now legal, suddenly require one of the most stringent prescription methods that exist for doctors. If called upon, they must support their reasoning for the prescription of any chosen C-II before the full state Board.
    I do not see a declassification occurring, no matter any prior prescribing and the ton of evidence we have.
    I know state-by-state seems like the biggest hassle on Earth, as I am a lone activist about 10 miles from Minnesota. Still, I am certain the only way we will get what is right and fair is working hard, state-by-state and city-by-city. Iowa could well be next on the city-by-city radar as we have far more support on this level of government. I am a medical professional, cannabis specialist, and activist and I can generally find a way around threats by the governor of any state because, face it they are politicians with an eye on the “Big Chair” in the White House. It is all a matter of finding their dirty tricks committee and work backwards in what is known.

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