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NY Law Journal: NY Lawmakers Ask Congress to Pass Marijuana Law Following Sessions Pot Reversal

By Josefa Velasquez, January 4

The architects of New York’s medical marijuana program are asking Congress to pass legislation allowing medical and recreational use programs after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Thursday that he is rescinding an Obama-era policy that generally kept federal law enforcement from interfering with states’ marijuana sales.

Assemblyman Richard Gottfried and state Sen. Diane Savino, both Democrats who helped craft New York’s medical marijuana program, are calling on U.S. Congress to enact legislation that would protect marijuana programs in the states that have them, which include New York and California, among others.

They were joined in their call by medical marijuana industry and drug policy reform advocacy groups.

“We need action now. The attorney general does not make laws, he enforces them, Congress makes law. I am calling on the 336 members of Congress who reside in states that have a legal medical cannabis program to stand up and do their job, move to pass legislation to legalize medical cannabis, now,” said Savino, who represents portions of Staten Island and Brooklyn.

In the same vein, Gottfried, who represents parts of Manhattan and has been the longtime head of the Assembly health committee, called on Congress to pass legislation allowing for the medical and recreational use of marijuana.

“Governors and state legislators should speak up on behalf of their constituents who benefit from these state-level programs today,” Gottfried said in an email.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office, which signed the state’s medical marijuana law in 2014, referred questions about the Trump administration’s change on marijuana policy to the state’s Department of Health. Health Commissioner Howard Zucker said in a statement the agency would review Sessions’ guidance on the rescission of the Obama-era policy.

The Associated Press first reported that Sessions planned to rescind the 2013 policy memorandum written by then-Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole, which allowed states to have marijuana programs without the interference of the federal government as long as they acted to keep it away from children and gang-related activity.

Since the so-called Cole memo was written, the fledgling marijuana industry has flourished across the country. More than two dozen states have medical marijuana programs. So far, eight states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for recreational use. Earlier this week, new legislation went into effect in California allowing the sale of recreational marijuana.

In a sharply worded statement, Gottfried called Sessions’ rescinding of the Cole memo “out of step with public opinion and contrary to good public health and public safety policy.

“Sessions is attempting to undo progress made through years of bi-partisan advocacy by parents of children with the most severe diseases, veterans, cancer patients, and others who have fought for alternatives to far worse, highly addictive opioid treatments. Sessions’s idea of respecting states’ rights is very selective,” the Manhattan Democrat added.

The New York Medical Cannabis Industry Association, a trade group representing the top five companies awarded a license to grow and dispense medical marijuana in July 2015, also urged Congress to pass legislation surrounding marijuana.

“It’s time for members of Congress that believe in state-rights and drug reform to work together to pass bi-partisan legislation to remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act and allow individual states to regulate marijuana as they deem appropriate,” the association said in a statement.

“Jeff Sessions’ obsession with marijuana prohibition defies logic, threatens successful state-level reforms, and flies in the face of widespread public support for legalization,” said Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, a lawyer who is executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, an advocacy group for drug law reform, in a statement. “It’s now time for Congress to put the brakes on Sessions’ destructive agenda by limiting the Justice Department’s ability to undermine states’ decision-making.”