Bush-Era Attorney General Cautions Against Cannabis Crackdown

Former US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales speaks in support of a coalition’s efforts to raise awareness about human trafficking on March 7, 2013. (Erik Schelzig/AP)

US Attorney General Jeff Sessions has far more important things to do than crack down on state-legal cannabis, the US attorney general under President George W. Bush told Newsweek in recent interview.

“We’ve got other priorities we ought to be spending our resources on.”
Alberto Gonzales, former US attorney general

“With respect to everything else going on in the US, this is pretty low-priority,” former US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said, adding that because the Department of Justice has limited enforcement resources, prioritization is essential.

“To prosecute an act that is otherwise lawful under state law,” he continued, “one could make the argument [that] as a matter of policy, we’ve got other priorities we ought to be spending our resources on.”

While Sessions has yet to take action to dismantle legal cannabis programs in 29 US states and the District of Columbia, he’s repeatedly lashed out at both medical and adult-use legalization.

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Late last month, for example, he doubled-down on the false claim that cannabis is largely responsible for the current opioid crisis. “When you talk to police chiefs, consistently they say much of the addiction starts with marijuana. It’s not a harmless drug,” he said. “We’ve got to re-establish, first, a view that you should just say no.”

It was a startling claim, especially given that his immediate predecessor, Obama-era AG Loretta Lynch, said most opioid addiction affects “individuals that started out with a prescription drug problem, and then because they need more and more, they turn to heroin.”

“It isn’t so much marijuana is the step right before using prescription drugs or opioids,” she said.

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For his part, Gonzales has long been a personal supporter of state-legal cannabis. Asked by CNN in late 2012 about federal prohibition of cannabis, he said, “I personally believe it’s a mistake.”

“Being a former state official of Texas,” he added, “I certainly believe in the rights of states to make these kinds of decisions for their own people.”

Sessions has yet to come down hard on state-legal cannabis despite his sharp criticism of legalization. His office is currently reviewing the Cole memo, a Department of Justice guidance document that sets a policy of noninterference with state-legal cannabis markets.

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One thing worth keeping in mind: Sessions doesn’t necessarily have the final say. As Gonzales told Newsweek, “What people often fail to understand or appreciate is that the attorney general works for the president.”

This could help explain why Sessions so far has been ranting against legal cannabis rather than filing legal actions against it. Trump may simply have Sessions on a short leash. After all, it’s not entirely clear where the president stands on legalization (he’s made conflicting statements) and, besides Sessions, his administration has been largely silent on cannabis. Trump, unlike Sessions, seems to share Gonzales’ view that the country has bigger fish to fry.

It’s also hard to justify a crackdown at a time when the bulk of Americans are against it. Nearly three-quarters of Americans opposed a federal crackdown in a recent survey—and 94% supported medical cannabis.

“The optics just aren’t very good, quite frankly,” Gonzales said.