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AG Nominee Merrick Garland Signals Hands-Off Policy For State-Legal Pot

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Judge Merrick Garland, President Biden’s pick for U.S. Attorney General, has indicated a reluctance to prosecute cannabis activities that are legal under state law in hearings with senators tasked with weighing his appointment. Biden nominated Garland, currently chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, to the nation’s highest law enforcement position on January 7.

Garland’s nomination is currently being considered by the U.S. Senate, which has the power to confirm or reject the appointment of the president’s cabinet members and other high-ranking executive branch officials. In a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, Garland said that under his leadership, the Department of Justice would concentrate on violations of federal law more serious than minor cannabis offenses.

“We can focus our attention on violent crimes and other crimes that put great danger in our society and not allocate our resources to something like marijuana possession,” Garland said.

Grassley Grills Garland

Several questions regarding cannabis policy were asked by Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee. In response to a question from Grassley regarding how he would navigate the Justice Department’s enforcement of federal law in states that have legalized marijuana, Garland said that he would seek to prioritize other crimes. Some aspects of cannabis enforcement, however, will still receive attention from federal law enforcement officials.

“I do not think it the best use of the Department’s limited resources to pursue prosecutions of those who are complying with the laws in states that have legalized and are effectively regulating marijuana,” Garland wrote in his responses to recently published “questions for the record” (QFRs) posed by senators. “I do think we need to be sure, for example, that there are no end runs around the state laws by criminal enterprises, and that access is prohibited to minors.”

Asked by Grassley how he sees the role of the Department of Justice “in the changing landscape of marijuana legalization, decriminalization, and recreational use,” Garland said that the Justice Department would continue its historic reluctance to pursue charges for low-level marijuana offenses.

“The Department of Justice has not historically devoted resources to prosecuting individuals for simple possession of marijuana,” he wrote, reiterating his belief that such prosecutions are not an effective use of personnel and tax-payer dollars. 

Garland was also asked how if he supported efforts to decriminalize or legalize marijuana, replying that “criminalizing the use of marijuana has contributed to mass incarceration and racial disparities in our criminal justice system, and has made it difficult for millions of Americans to find employment due to criminal records for nonviolent offenses.”

Although not exactly a ringing endorsement of cannabis policy reform, Justin Strekal, the political director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), said in a statement from the organization that Garland’s comments “indicate that he has no intention of curbing the progress being made in the regulation and consumer access of cannabis and for that, we can breathe a momentary sigh of relief.”

“There is much work left to do, but for the first time in over 4 years, supporters of ending federal marijuana criminalization no longer have an active opponent leading the Department of Justice,” Strekal added.



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