The fate of federal marijuana regulation got a jolt Wednesday with the country’s top law enforcement official, and staunch legalization opponent, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, resigning from his post.
Sessions, a hard-lined advocate for enforcing federal laws that prohibit marijuana cultivation, sale and use, has been replaced, at least for now, by his chief of staff, Matthew Whitaker.
Cannabis industry leaders are applauding Sessions’s departure, calling it long overdue.
“His presence in office set the country back years, his opposition of legalized cannabis set our industry back years, and we’ve now hopefully heard the last of his meddling in our industry that he opposed as if he was talking of it existing nearly 100 years ago,” Dustin Iannotti, co-founder of Artisans on Fire, a cannabis-focused marketing agency, said.
The market seemed to share this sentiment, and there was an uptick in cannabis stocks on Wednesday — which Iannotti described as “one more sign that the industry is ready to move forward without [Sessions].”
But it remains to be seen whether Sessions’s temporary replacement will move the Justice Department in favor of legalization.
‘Congress should … regulate the things that harm people’
Whitaker, who will serve as acting attorney general, joined the Justice Department in 2017 after previously serving as a U.S. attorney in Iowa and executive director for the conservative watchdog group Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust.
In his capacity as acting AG, Whitaker can retain retain his post absent Senate confirmation for at least 210 days under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act.
The potential for 10 months on the job means Whitaker could play a key role in influencing the Justice Department’s approach to marijuana law enforcement. A 2014 primary debate for Iowa’s republican U.S. Senate nomination can shed some light on his position on the issue.
“I know a couple of families that are going to be positively impacted by what has happened in the state senate today,” Whitaker said of the Iowa legislature’s passage of a bill to allow certain patients access to CBD. “I think Congress, you know, should regulate the things that harm people. And that is the hard drugs, and the like that dramatically hurt citizens, cause violent crimes in our communities.”
In the same debate, Whitaker also signaled hesitation about violence spawned by illegal marijuana trade along the country’s southern border.
“I saw the impact of marijuana on our borders. And if you go to any of the counties in Texas where there’s an illegal importation of marijuana there’s a tremendous amount of violence,” he said.
For the time being, the Justice Department still has a Sessions-era directive in effect ordering U.S. attorneys to ignore the Obama administration’s so-called Cole memo to de-prioritize prosecution of marijuana-related offenses in states where the drug is legal.
Moreover, it’s not clear now how long Whitaker will actually stay in the temporary position. In a Twitter post Wednesday afternoon President Donald Trump said, “A permanent replacement will be nominated at a later date.”
Still, marijuana advocates might be heartened by recent reports hinting that Trump soon intends to make good on a campaign promise to relax the criminalization of medical marijuana. He has previously said recreational regulation should be left up to the states.
Alexis Keenan is a New York-based reporter for Yahoo Finance. She previously produced live news for CNN and MSNBC and is a former litigation attorney.