Nevada Republican Rep. Mark Amodei sees no immediate threat to the state’s burgeoning marijuana industry following Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recent decision to overturn policy at the Justice Department that gave states protections from federal prosecution.
“I don’t think there is a reason for panic,” Amodei said on a call with reporters on Tuesday, several days after the decision was announced. “It is good to keep your eye on it.”
Although he doesn’t expect a crackdown, he believes Congress should act to clear up the issue of medical and recreational marijuana use.
“If we want some predictability and stability...it’s probably time...that Congress get off its butt and start dealing with the issues,” Amodei said.
The Northern Nevada lawmaker’s measured approach mirrors that of some in the state’s marijuana industry. Nick Spirtos, a doctor who runs The Apothecary Shoppe dispensary west of the Las Vegas Strip, said that while his customers were stressed by Sessions’ move, he entered the business with eyes wide open.
“I don’t worry about it,” Spirtos said in an interview after a Thursday press conference held at his dispensary. “Look, the federal government could’ve closed us down anytime they wanted. We undertook this with the understanding that there were risks. Hopefully they will appreciate what we’re doing to contribute to the overall health of the patients in this state.”
Democrats sounded the alarm about the move, calling Nevadans to fight for their state’s rights to maintain a marijuana industry in spite of federal prohibition. Democratic state Sen. Tick Segerblom, sometimes called the godfather of marijuana in Nevada, said he’d been fielding anxious calls from people in the industry.
“I tell them on the one hand, don’t worry, relax, calm down,” he said in an interview Thursday. “On the other hand, I’ll say, we need to push back. We need to scream bloody murder. This is unacceptable.”
Democratic Rep. Dina Titus said that while Congress — which has anti-marijuana lawmakers in key leadership positions — has made virtually no progress on relaxing a federal marijuana ban, the anxiety over Sessions’ decision could force more lawmakers to take a stand.
“This may work to our advantage,” she said in an interview on Thursday. “Now that we see what this is really going to do, it may motivate more representatives from states to get busy and pass that legislation because they’ll be hearing from their constituents, they’ll be hearing from businesses and maybe we can make something good about that.”
Marijuana is currently classified with drugs such as heroin, that are deemed to be “drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Amodei noted that he has been working with Titus to support legislation introduced by Maryland Republican Andy Harris that would legalize medical marijuana. He said the two also back a bill from Colorado Democrat Jared Polis that would allow recreational use to classify marijuana similar to alcohol.
Amodei said that marijuana could become an issue his re-election campaign since “in the election everything is fair game,” and underscored his belief that it is time for Congress to settle the matter.
“If you really want to address the issue, you’ll hear me say in the campaign cycle, ‘it’s time for us to act,’” said Amodei, who represents a heavily Republican district. “By the time that discussion starts in a few months, you’ll also hear me say... ‘here’s the legislation I’ve affiliated myself with, here’s why, here’s the research we’ve done.’”
He expects dealing with medical marijuana will be easier than dealing with recreational. While he is working with Titus, he said he had not seen the details of a bill co-sponsored recently by Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen that would prohibit federal prosecution of individuals for marijuana possession so long as they follow their state’s respective marijuana laws.
Amodei was not also prepared to advocate for language to be included in the annual spending bills that would prohibit use of federal funds to prosecute recreational use. Such a provision, offered by California Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, exists for medical marijuana, which has been included in previous spending bills. California Republican Rep. Tom McClintock has proposed a provision to protect both. “I haven’t thought about it, but we are going to look at that,” Amodei said.
Asked if he had worked with any Senate counterparts, Amodei said, “I can’t tell you what they’re doing over in the Senate, but that’s not a news flash for me,” Amodei said.
Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner, who also chairs Senate Republicans’ campaign arm, said he expects that lawmakers from states with legalized marijuana, such as Nevada, to stand up for their constituents.
“The people of Colorado made it very clear what they wanted as it relates to marijuana, at first medical marijuana, then recreational marijuana, and I think it’s my job to protect those states' rights and states' decision,” Gardner said Tuesday. “I think senators in states...where they have legalized medical and recreational marijuana will find themselves in the same situation defending and protecting states' rights.”
Heller issued a less forceful statement than Gardner when Sessions’ decision came down, encouraging the Department of Justice to work with Nevada’s governor, attorney general and congressional delegation. Segerblom called on Sen. Dean Heller to join Gardner in a more aggressive crusade.
“If Heller would stand up and join with Gardner, they’d have to back off in a second. Then we’d have 51 votes on our side and no federal appointments or nothing,” Segerblom said. “So if those Republicans in states that have recreational would just get together and say ‘this is money, this is jobs,’ we’d be in good shape.”
Heller didn’t respond to a request Tuesday for additional comment.
Gardner, who has threatened to block all Department of Justice nominees, including U.S. marshals and U.S. attorneys, is meeting with Sessions on Wednesday. “The bottom line is that this could be solved by the Department of Justice changing their decision to reverse the Cole Memorandum.”
Gardner said that he intends to discuss with Sessions a solution that would “allow (Sessions) to live up to his commitments he made to me prior to his confirmation.”
The Colorado senator, who voted to confirm Sessions as attorney general has said that he had commitments from Sessions and President Donald Trump that marijuana enforcement policy would not change.
Under Sessions’ pronouncement, U.S. attorneys will have broad discretion on whether to prosecute violations of federal marijuana law in their districts rather than adhering to guidelines provided under the Cole Memo. Gardner said that he was concerned by the comments issued Monday by the U.S. Attorney in Massachusetts.
Although the U.S. Attorney in Colorado said last week that he would not seek to prosecute violations of federal law with regard to marijuana, the U.S. Attorney in Massachusetts, Andrew Lelling, released a statement noting that he could not “provide assurances that certain categories of participants in the state-level marijuana trade will be immune from federal prosecution.”
The office of Nevada’s U.S. attorney, Dayle Elieson, declined to comment on Tuesday. Elieson, who hails from Dallas and began in the role on Friday, so far has not given any public indication about where she stands on the matter — a fact that concerns some marijuana proponents.
“It leaves it up to the discretion of the states. Some may be more aggressive than others in going after the businesses,” Titus said about Sessions’ decision. “Texas doesn’t have it, she doesn’t know much about it. We don’t know what that means, whether she’s going to be aggressive or not."