U.S. Attorney General William Barr, asked about a bill sponsored by U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner to give states a freer hand in setting marijuana policy, told a congressional hearing Wednesday that while he still favors a "federal rule against marijuana," he supports the "approach" taken by the Gardner measure as an alternative to "where we currently are."
Barr was testifying before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee when he was asked about the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States Act (STATES Act) introduced last week by Gardner, R-Colorado, and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts. U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, is among several co-sponsors from both parties.
The measure aims to ensure that states can determine marijuana legalization issues for themselves.
Gardner has criticized federal laws classifying marijuana as an illegal drug that could lead to felony convictions even when state law allows it, as in Colorado.
During the hearing, Barr was asked about the STATES Act by U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, which she said she supported.
"So can you share with me, share with the committee, where you are on this approach that has been outlined in this STATES Act and whether or not we can work with you on this issue?" Murkowski asked Barr, according to a transcript provided by Gardner's office.
"... The situation that I think is intolerable, in which I’m opposed to, is the current situation we’re in, and I would prefer one of two approaches rather than where we are," Barr replied.
"Personally, I would still favor one uniform federal rule against marijuana," he said, "but if there is not sufficient consensus to obtain that, then I think the way to go is to permit a more federal approach that states can make their own decisions within the framework of the federal law and so we’re not just ignoring the enforcement of federal law.
"Now I haven’t studied specifically the STATES law, but I’ve just circulated it through the [Justice] Department for comment and I think that’s the process it’s in now," Barr added. "Once we get those comments we’ll be able to work with you on any concerns about the STATES law, but I would much rather that approach, with the approach taken by the STATES Act, than where we currently are."
In a statement, Gardner took that as support from Barr for his bill.
“Earlier this year I met with then attorney general nominee William Barr ahead of his confirmation vote, and we discussed the disconnect between federal and state marijuana laws,” Gardner said.
“In particular, we discussed how my STATES Act would provide a state-based solution to the conflict between federal law and those 47 states that allow some form of cannabis. The bipartisan, commonsense bill ensures the federal government will respect the will of the voters – whether that is legalization or prohibition – and not interfere in any states’ legal marijuana industry.
"I’m glad Attorney General Barr [Wednesday] reiterated his belief that the current situation is untenable and that the STATES Act is an approach he would be interested in pursuing, and I hope my colleagues will hear his loud and clear call for Congress to act.”
The Justice Department initially tolerated states’ efforts to legalize marijuana. But last year it withdrew the support amid outcries from opponents about health and safety concerns.
Gardner's bill is opposed by the public policy group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which says it would pave the way for nationwide legalization of pot.
Barr appeared before the subcommittee to make his Justice Department budget request, but he talked about other subjects, including Robert Mueller's report and whether government power was misused in the Russia investigation.
Tom Ramstack contributed.