For cannabis advocates, the November 2018 election brought several victories. Voters passed medical cannabis ballot measures in Utah and Missouri and an adult use measure in Michigan, and they showed strong support for various nonbinding legalization questions in Wisconsin.

Nationally, voters also gave the Democrats a majority in the House. Perhaps as a result, the day after the election, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, an outspoken opponent of marijuana legalization, resigned. While his resignation may have more to do with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into President Donald Trump than cannabis, for advocates the resignation could be seen as another victory nonetheless. What change to the Department of Justice’s marijuana policy may be in store now that Acting U.S. Attorney General Matthew Whitaker is the head of the DOJ?

In 2014, Whitaker ran for the U.S. Senate in Iowa and participated in a televised debate. When the subject of Iowa’s then-recent passage of a bill legalizing CBD oil for treatment of seizures came up, Whitaker said:

I know a couple of families that are going to be positively impacted by what has happened in the State Senate today, and I applaud them for helping those families that need that help. But what we have now is we have an attorney general that is telling state attorney generals if you disagree with a law you don’t have to enforce it. And I am gravely concerned that we are now going to go back and forth between who is in the White House and what their drug enforcement policy is and you’ll see under what we have now where you have Colorado and other states legalizing it and really with no federal interference and then when we come back we may have a different regulatory scheme.

As a Republican candidate, it may be taken for granted that Whitaker would find a reason to criticize the Democratic U.S. attorney general of the time. When asked what should be done to resolve the conflict between states that were legalizing cannabis products and the federal government, however, Whitaker had little to say that was specific: “I think Congress should regulate the things that harm people and that is the hard drugs and the like that dramatically hurt citizens, cause violent crime in our communities and those should be regulated.”

The moderator followed up this response with a direct question: “But not marijuana?” Whitaker responded: “I mean, for me I saw the impact of marijuana on our borders. And if you go to any of the counties in Texas where there is an illegal importation of marijuana there is a tremendous amount of violence.” In short, Whitaker declined to make a clear statement of his views on the issues of cannabis legalization and the conflict between the states and the federal government regarding legalization. Instead, he opted to express “concern” about the conflict and to tie marijuana to Mexico. While Whitaker may have had grave concerns about the federal government’s looking the other way when states defied it on marijuana, he encouraged states to defy the federal government when it came to the Affordable Care Act. In a 2013 speech, he said: “do we have the political courage in the state of Iowa or some other state to nullify Obamacare?”

While Whitaker may still be as unwilling to state a clear position on cannabis as he was in 2014, advocates may be able to see something positive in his appointment. One is that he is not Sessions, and another is that Whitaker was at least willing to say something positive about a CBD program for severely affected patients. Finally, the 2018 election sent a clear signal to Congress that a majority of Americans, including Republicans, want federal marijuana reform. While evidently not a supporter of reform himself, Whitaker may preside over a change in federal enforcement in the coming years.

What do you think? Will Congress pass marijuana reform legislation in 2019? Leave a comment below.  

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