Attorney General Barr: US law protecting state-legal marijuana trumps current situation

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U.S. Attorney General William Barr might be warming to the idea of a federal law that protects state-legal cannabis programs, a development that could provide a notable boost to federal marijuana reform.

Barr signaled at a Senate appropriations hearing Wednesday that he is open to the approach outlined in legislation such as the STATES (Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States) Act. Barr has circulated the legislation to the U.S. Department of Justice for review and comment.

The STATES Act, which was recently reintroduced in both chambers of Congress, would carve out an exemption in the federal Controlled Substances Act for state-legal marijuana programs.

“Personally, I would still favor one uniform federal rule against marijuana,” Barr said during the hearing Wednesday.

“But if there’s not sufficient consensus to obtain that, then I think the way to go is to permit a more federal approach so states can make their own decisions within the framework of a federal law so we’re not just ignoring the enforcement of federal law.”

Later, Barr said he would prefer that approach “than where we are now,” which he characterized as an “intolerable” situation because of the conflict between federal and state marijuana laws.

Barr said he hasn’t specifically studied the STATES Act himself, but the Justice Department is reviewing the legislation.

“Once we get those comments, we’ll be able to work with you on any concerns about (the bill),” he said in response to questions asked by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska who is a co-sponsor of the STATES Act.

Barr’s comments Wednesday mirrored much of what he said during his confirmation hearings in January, when he articulated a hands-off policy toward state-legal businesses but was critical of the disparity between federal and state laws.

But while he made it clear during his confirmation hearings that he opposed legalized marijuana, on Wednesday he appeared more open to reform.

Barr also was asked about the Cole Memo, which was put in place during the Obama administration to protect state-legal cannabis businesses. The policy was later rescinded by former AG Jeff Sessions in a move that alarmed the MJ industry.

Barr had said in his confirmation hearing that he wouldn’t go after marijuana businesses that rely on the Cole Memo.

He was asked Wednesday by Sen. Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii, whether the Justice Department would restore the Cole Memo if Congress can’t come to an agreement on legislation.

“We’re going to have to make some difficult choices,” Barr said. “One open question in my mind is, if states continue to pass these laws, are we going to continue to forbear (enforcement of federal law) in those states?

“I would like to see Congress address this issue.”

Schatz asked Barr if he’s provided any guidance in the meantime.

The Justice Department, Barr said, is “operating under my general guidance that I’m accepting the Cole Memorandum for now, but I’ve generally left it up to the U.S. Attorneys in each state to determine what the best approach is.

“I haven’t heard any complaints from the states that have legalized marijuana.”

Jeff Smith can be reached at