Attorney General Nominee Bill Barr’s Mixed Message on Cannabis

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During his first day of confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill, Bill Barr, President Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general, delivered a mixed but overall reassuring message regarding his take on federal cannabis policy.

In response to Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA), Barr pledged that, if confirmed, he will not use federal resources to enforce federal laws in states that have legalized cannabis. This soundbite made yesterday’s cannabis-related headlines, but it’s worth parsing through the rest of Barr’s answers to the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.  

When Senator Booker asked, “Do you believe it was the right decision to rescind the Cole Memorandum?” the nominee was vague but pointed to the “investments that have been made” and said that his approach would not “upset settled expectations.”

Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, lauded this response, telling Cannabis Wire that Barr “provides assurance to over one hundred thousand cannabis industry employees, thousands of legal businesses, and the many state and local governments reliant upon marijuana tax revenue.”

Barr’s exchange with Senator Booker, however, didn’t end there. “I think the current situation is untenable and really has to be addressed,” Barr said, referencing the existing and urgent conflict between states passing cannabis laws, and the federal government that maintains that cannabis is a Schedule I prohibited substance. Barr added, “we either should have a federal law that prohibits marijuana everywhere—which I would support myself ‘cause I think it’s a mistake to back off on marijuana—however, if we want a federal approach, if we want states to have their own laws, then let’s get there and let’s get there the right way.”

When speaking with Senator Harris minutes later, Barr said that the current patchwork of state laws in the US is “breeding disrespect for the federal law.”

“[It]’s incumbent on the Congress to regularize, you know, make a decision,” Barr said.

“I agree with you,” said Harris, who called for legalization and the expungement of nonviolent cannabis-related offenses just last week. “I believe Congress should act.”

Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO), who last year introduced the bipartisan “Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES)”Act alongside Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), indicated that he plans to speak with Barr about taking a states’ rights approach to regulating cannabis prior to his confirmation vote. Last year, Gardner blocked President Donald Trump’s nominees to the Department of Justice until Trump promised to support the STATES Act.


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