Former Attorney General Eric Holder said Tuesday that current Attorney General Jeff Sessions has an "almost obsession with marijuana," and said the Justice Department was right to allow states to regulate recreational marijuana sales.
As attorney general from 2009-2015, Holder presided over a Justice Department decision to allow states to regulate recreational marijuana sales in violation of federal law so long as certain enforcement triggers such as underage sales and interstate smuggling weren't tripped.
Sessions frequently criticizes marijuana use and legalization in public remarks, and his department is reviewing whether to revise or more strictly enforce the 2013 Cole Memo that outlined federal enforcement priorities.
"I think that was a really good policy," Holder said. "The Sessions almost obsession with marijuana I think is the thing that's put the Justice Department in this strange place."
Holder, speaking at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said there appeared to be tension between Sessions' hostility toward reform and support for state autonomy in Congress.
The former attorney general appeared to be confused at one point about what action Congress has taken on marijuana, saying that lawmakers had passed legislation "that said no federal money could be used to bring federal law enforcement against people who are using marijuana in states where it had been either legalized or where it had been authorized for medicinal purposes."
Since 2014, Congress has passed spending prohibitions that protect medical pot programs from federal prosecutors and anti-drug agents, but lawmakers have never passed similar protections for recreational marijuana markets.
Holder added: "I think the policy we had in place was a good one: Let the states experiment with the notion that again we have these eight or nine federal factors and if you trigger one of these eight or nine factors the feds are going to be coming in."
The former attorney general's remarks were greeted with an eye roll by some marijuana activists.
Journalist and activist Tom Angell tweeted: "Eric Holder could have rescheduled marijuana while in office but didn't," referring to a policy change that would ease scientific research and open the door to marijuana being lawfully prescribed.
Eight states currently have laws allowing for recreational marijuana markets. More than half allow medical marijuana.