President Trump confirmed on Friday that he plans to nominate William Barr, a Republican lawyer and former Justice Department official, to replace ousted Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Barr has already served once as US attorney general (1991-1993), earning a reputation as a staunch anti-drug advocate under then-President George H.W. Bush. But with 62% of American voters supporting full cannabis legalization and almost 9 in 10 supporting medical legalization (Pew Research Center), where does Barr stand today? What would this mean for legal cannabis?
During his term in office, Bush had made the drug war a focus of his administration, going so far as to call drugs the greatest domestic threat facing our nation today. “The question now is whether Barr will take a similarly tough approach under Trump, who has said relatively little about legal cannabis during his time in office,” writes Ben Adlin, a Leafly contributor.
Barr’s current stance on marijuana legalization is fuzzy. He doesn’t seem to have made any public statements on the issue in recent years, and he has not weighed in on debates like whether the federal government should let states enact their own cannabis laws. He will probably be asked about the issue during his Senate confirmation hearings, so we’ll know more about where he stands soon.
Jeff Sessions’ tenure as AG was unusual not only because he had seemingly borrowed his views on cannabis from Reagan-era anti-drug hysteria, but because he preserved those views even as public opinion steadily shifted over the decades. In 1986, Sessions quipped that he “thought [the Ku Klux Klan] was OK until [he] learned they smoked pot.” And three decades later, at a 2016 Senate hearing, he said “good people don’t smoke marijuana.”
In other words, Sessions seems to have neglected the giant shift in public opinion that has taken place since the late 1980s. Barr, on the other hand, may have changed his views—but we’ll have to wait to find out.
The bad news?
As Marijuana Moment contributor Kyle Jaeger explains, Barr’s stint in the Bush administration could be unsettling for some legalization advocates:
The prospective nominee seems to share a worldview with the late president under whom he served. Bush called for ‘more prisons, more jails, more courts, more prosecutors’ to combat drug use and dramatically increased the federal drug control budget to accomplish that goal. In 1992, Barr sanctioned a report that made the ‘case for more incarceration’ as a means to reduce violent crime.
In the 1990s, Barr supported Bush’s call for the single biggest spending increase in the history of drug enforcement, a $1.5 billion increase in federal police spending. And in 2015, Barr wrote to lawmakers urging them to reject sentencing reform.
The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), which supports decriminalizing drugs and pursuing policies based on harm reduction, called Barr “a fierce advocate for mass incarceration and punitive drug policies,” says Adlin.
“Its hard to imagine an Attorney General as bad as Jeff Sessions when it comes to criminal justice and the drug war, but Trump seems to have found one,” explains Michael Collins, DPA’s director of national affairs. “William Barr is a disastrous choice.”
The good news?
Jeff Sessions set a pretty low standard in terms of adaptability, and the steady shift in public opinion around cannabis in the US has been massive in recent decades. According to the Pew Research Center, public support for full legalization has climbed from a low of 12% in 1969 to 62% in 2018. And almost 9 in 10 voters now support medical legalization, a separate poll found.
While Sessions may have found it reprehensible to update his views over the decades, Barr very well might have.
As Barry Grissom, a former US attorney in Kansas (2010-2016), posits: “I can’t find anything that makes me believe that he is falling into the category of true believer, [but] I see him as someone who’s an institutionalist. I don’t think he’s going to relive 1991 to 1993.”
“Mr. Barr is a very smart man,” he explains. “I don’t have any doubt that he’s fully appraised of the failures of the drug war.”
A lot of people in Washington, such as Justin Strekal, political director at NORML, think it would be foolish for Barr to direct the Justice Department to interfere with functioning medical cannabis programs in most US states.
“Over half of the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee represent states that have or are in the process of enacting a legal marijuana marketplace,” Strekal said in a press release. “It is our intention that Mr. Barr be put on the record regarding his current position on cannabis given his record as a proponent of the failed War on Drugs.”
In a conversation with Leafly, Grissom said that if he had the chance to question Barr during the confirmation process, he would ask him if he was familiar with the Cole memo, “and if you are, would you be willing to reinstate what the Cole memo stands for in light of the efforts that are presently being made in Congress concerning whether or not cannabis is going to remain as a Schedule I drug?”
The Cole memo is a nonbinding Justice Department document issued under the Obama administration that advised federal prosecutors not to interfere with state cannabis systems or businesses that complied with state law. Sessions revoked the Cole memo in January 2018.
“This is just one aspect of the whole push for criminal justice reform,” Grissom said. “I’m optimistic that he will adopt a position that is, at least, at a minimum, cannabis-neutral so we can see what’s happening with our new Congress around issues concerning cannabis.”
In other words, with Barr as AG, there is hope that cannabis will continue to prosper in places like Colorado, where the state tallied roughly $1.5 billion in legal cannabis sales last year. Then again, the benchmark set by Barr’s predecessor was pretty low, so a hands-off approach will probably be enough to assuage the concerns of most cannabis advocates.
Until Barr is confirmed, the Justice Department will continue to be led by acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker.