Tuesday, July 25, 2017

One man will decide if people are allowed access to marijuana

Michael Murray isn’t well known outside of legal circles, but that may soon change. The former Supreme Court clerk holds the fate of a multibillion-dollar cannabis industry in his hands and will make recommendations soon on whether to launch a crackdown.

People who know Murray can’t imagine the straight-laced young father of three thinking highly of marijuana use and describe him as quiet and personally conservative. But they also say he is thoughtful and independent-minded.

Murray, a 2009 Yale Law School graduate, is a counsel to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and was tasked with the review earlier this year, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a larger crime task force would have a marijuana subcommittee.

The marijuana subcommittee's work is shrouded in secrecy, with recommendations due by July 27. The outcome could be either a yawn or a jarring assault on states that have regulated seed-to-sale markets serving adults 21 and older.

Possession and sale of marijuana remain federal crimes. The Obama administration, however, allowed states broad leeway to regulate medical and recreational sales. Eight states now have laws authorizing recreational pot markets.

Among the conceivable outcomes, the subcommittee could move to pull the rug out from under the cannabis industry by withdrawing or modifying the 2013 Cole Memo, which allowed recreational pot stores to open so long as enforcement triggers – such as underage sales, interstate smuggling and public health consequences – aren’t tripped.

At least in theory, Murray is not the only person reviewing the policy. But it’s not clear who else may be serving on the subcommittee and some legalization advocates fear the fix is in, with large pot advocacy and business groups saying they have had no contact.

"They have been operating in a black box, really," says Taylor West, deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association. "There has been no indication that there was an opening for any viewpoint other than those of whoever is on this committee."

West says the group is "preparing with our allies in D.C. for whatever may come from this."

Statistics from the early years of pot legalization can be manipulated to support a viewpoint, making diverse input potentially significant. For example, two recent studies came to opposite conclusions on the effects of legalization on traffic safety. And while surveys show teen pot use has not increased nationally or in the pioneering states since 2012, contrasting current rates to historical low points offers a different impression.

A closed-to-the-press June summit associated with the larger Justice Department task force featured a discussion on drug-supply reduction with Kevin Sabet, the nation's most prominent anti-legalization organizer and leader of the group Smart Approaches to Marijuana. Sabet has not said what interactions, if any, he has with the subcommittee.

Amplifying reformers’ concern is the fact that the larger task force is co-chaired by Steve Cook, an advocate of harsh sentences for drug crimes. And Murray’s boss, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, is a cantankerous critic of marijuana use who in May asked Congress to drop budget language protecting state medical marijuana programs.

Murray lacks the combative style of Sessions or Cook, according to friends and former colleagues, who describe him as family-oriented and scholarly. One supporter of legalization who asked not to be identified said they trusted his judgment.

Murray joined the Justice Department after working for the Jones Day law firm, which has sent many attorneys to the Trump administration. His wife, Claire McCusker Murray, became associate counsel to President Donald Trump earlier this year.

“Michael is a brilliant young lawyer [and] he has a somewhat understated personality, especially compared to a lot of people who fill the ranks of the Trump administration,” says David Lat, who also clerked for Judge Diarmuid O'Scannlain, a prominent conservative on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

“I would not expect anything crazy from him,” says Lat, who did not clerk for O'Scannlain at the same time as Murray but knows him socially.

Lat, managing editor of legal news website Above the Law, and others contacted for this story say they cannot recall any specific conversation with Murray about marijuana, but Lat says “my guess would be that he’s not a toker type.”

“The types of people who clerk for Judge O’Scannlain are not the types of people who smoke marijuana,” Lat says. “Judge O'Scannlain hires very proper people. His clerks are basically boy scouts and girl scouts. We are very buttoned-up people, and Michael fits that mold.”

Katherine Moran Meeks, an attorney who clerked alongside Murray for Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in 2013-2014, says Murray is, however, “a man of his own mind.”

“He’s a person of integrity and he’s there to offer a careful legal opinion,” Meeks says. “I’m sure that’s what he’ll give, rather than something driven by partisanship.”

The Justice Department does not have an official photograph of Murray, but a picture showing the tall and fair-haired attorney among a group of Jones Day associates was circulated in 2014 and remains available online. A member of the firm’s media relations department refused to authorize reuse of the photo for this article.

A Justice Department spokesman declined to provide additional details about the ongoing review.

Robert Dunn, who overlapped briefly as a clerk in Judge O'Scannlain’s office in 2010 recalls Murray being “a smart, smart dude” who handed over case work with “a very well-thought-through reason” for everything.

“The adjective that jumps to my mind is that he strikes me as very thoughtful,” Dunn says. “He thinks before he acts."


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