Attorney General Nominee: Marijuana Enforcement Not “Best Use” of Resources

Merrick Garland

In the recently published questions for the record (QFRs) to Judge Merrick Garland from members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, multiple inquiries were asked and answered pertaining to the federal prohibition and criminalization of cannabis.

Largely, Garland reiterated and expanded upon his remarks given in the hearing the previous week when he indicated that under his direction, the Justice Department is unlikely to get involved in states where cannabis is legal – a policy first outlined by the Obama administration, but later rescinded in 2018 by former AG Jeff Sessions.  

In the QFR’s, there was a string of cannabis questions from Senator Chuck Grassley:

a. Under your leadership, how will you navigate the Justice Department’s enforcement of federal law in states where marijuana has been legalized?
RESPONSE: As I suggested at my hearing, 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. 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.

b. What do you see the role of the Justice Department to be in the changing landscape of marijuana legalization, decriminalization, and recreational use?
RESPONSE: The Department of Justice has not historically devoted resources to
prosecuting individuals for simple possession of marijuana. As I suggested at my hearing, 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. 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.

c. Do you support efforts to decriminalize or legalize marijuana?
RESPONSE: As I said at my hearing, 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.

Most notably was a question that reflected an inconsistency on President Joe Biden’s marijuana position (this is something NORML pointed out in July of 2020 when the “Unity Platform” was released):

e. While Biden is opposed to legalization of marijuana, he supports decriminalization of possession and expungements of marijuana offenses. Do you see any contradictions in President Biden’s vision of maintaining the drug’s federally illegal status while decriminalizing minor possession and expunging prior conviction records?
RESPONSE: As I testified at my hearing, it is important to focus our attention on violent
crimes and other crimes that greatly endanger our society, and prosecutions for simple
marijuana possession are not an effective use of limited resources. As I testified, we have seen disparate treatment in these prosecutions that has had a harmful impact on people
and communities of color, including stymied employment opportunities and social and
economic instability.

For all intents and purposes, Judge Garland’s responses 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.

As always, contact your lawmakers and tell them to support pending policy reform efforts using our Action Center: https://norml.org/act

Author: Justin Strekal, NORML Political Director

You can follow me on twitter @justinstrekal