Why We Need a Pro-Marijuana Attorney General

Why We Need a Pro-Marijuana Attorney General

Published on 1/1/21

The U.S. will welcome a new administration on January 20, 2021, and the changes that are expected to come once Joe Biden and his team - regardless of who has control of the Senate - begin their work are extensive. Some of those changes will hopefully include marijuana policy reform. On election day back in November, residents in five states voted convincingly in favor of ballot measures legalizing marijuana for either recreational or medical use. Included in the list are the traditionally conservative-leaning strongholds of Arizona, Mississippi, Montana and South Dakota. These ballot measures mean that 36 states now allow medical cannabis use and 15 have provisions for legal recreational use. The latest state referendum results only solidify the fact that the majority of Americans would favor legalizing weed federally. 

Joe Biden and Cannabis


Unlike most of the challengers he defeated in the race to be the Democratic Party's nominee for President, Biden's stance on marijuana is far from progressive. As one of the leaders in the War on Drugs in the 1980s and 90s, Biden was instrumental in pushing for harsh penalties for drug use and possession. Legislation he crafted and sponsored resulted in African Americans and people of color disproportionately punished and incarcerated for drug offenses. The now infamous language that considered crack cocaine to be significantly worse than powder cocaine - and subsequently destroyed Black communities - was part of a bill passed in 1986 thanks to Biden's ardent support. The President-elect has subsequently apologized, but the fact remains that his record on drug policy and controlled substances is frighteningly myopic.

What Does the Attorney General Do?

Once a new president is chosen, the focus shifts from the election to who the person will pick to fill the top cabinet posts vacated by the outgoing administration. There are four that are considered to be of greatest import: Department of Defense, Department of State, Department of Treasury and the Department of Justice (DOJ). The head of the DOJ is known as the Attorney General of the United States and is the chief law enforcement officer of the nation. They represent the U.S. Government in legal matters, oversees and enforces civil rights initiatives, supervise federal attorneys, serve as legal advisor to the President and guide policy regarding federal prisons.

The United States Attorney General's Influence on the Cannabis Industry


With those types of responsibilities, the U.S. Attorney General can wield immense power over how marijuana is dealt with in this country. The power does not extend to initiating or crafting legislation, but it does present in how federal law is enforced. The Attorney General office sets the tone for the way the Federal Government views marijuana legality in the country. 

For members of the legal cannabis industry and the millions who rely on marijuana for its medical benefits, the hope is that Biden will appoint an attorney general who will maintain a hands-off approach to dealing with state laws and activities concerning cannabis. Someone who will avoid the hypocritical practice of championing states' rights out of one side of their mouth while initiating federal crackdowns and raids on legal state businesses out of the other. The new AG can positively affect the nation's flourishing cannabis industry in several ways. 

Attorney Generals and Marijuana: Recent History


Over the last several decades, attorney generals have presented differing viewpoints on federal cannabis policy, but none have taken a stand for legalizing weed federally in a manner that it is hoped President-elect Biden's AG will. The first inkling that marijuana policy might be changed at the federal level came in the late 1970s. Before taking over the top post for President Carter in 1979, Deputy Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti broached the idea that a change from marijuana's listing as a Schedule I narcotic in The Controlled Substance Act 1970 might be possible. Civiletti said that any potential change in federal policy would be "substantially dependent" on medical research and that he may support "a legal method of safe use."

Unfortunately, Carter's subsequent loss to Ronald Reagan meant an end to any consideration of the possibility of easing federal cannabis statutes. Reagan's attorney generals and those of his successor George H. W. Bush rarely strayed far from the Republican Party's staunch anti-marijuana agenda. Any hope for a change under Democrat Bill Clinton was shot down with venom at a news conference in 1996 when Attorney General Janet Reno and her colleagues in Health and Human Services and the Office of National Drug Control Policy responded to California's passage of Proposition 215 (also known as the Compassionate Use Act) with statements like, "all available research has concluded that marijuana is dangerous to our health. Marijuana harms the brain, heart, lungs and immune system.'' In a surprisingly aggressive move, AG Reno's office also threatened to remove the prescription-writing privileges of doctors who prescribed marijuana under the new state law. The idea of doctors facing criminal charges was even mooted by Reno.

What a Merrick Garland Appointment Means for Cannabis

President-elect Biden recently nominated Merrick Garland to become the next Attorney General of the United States. Garland is most well-known as the former chief justice of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. He was also selected by President Obama as a nominee for Supreme Court Justice, which was delayed and essentially blocked by Republicans. Should Garland's nomination be accepted, we're curious how the future AG will handle cannabis. In a 2012 case that saw the DEA denying a marijuana rescheduling petition, Garland upheld the denial - stating that the DEA is the authority on cannabis policy. While this might seem anti-cannabis, Garland isn't necessarily against legalization but believes that the DEA should be the one to make the decision. Furthermore, president-elect Biden has picked both Vanita Gupta and Kristen Clarke for top positions in the Justice apartment, and both are for cannabis policy reform. 

What do you think of Merrick Garland as Attorney General? Let us know what you think in the comments below!

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Anastasia Papanikolaou
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