AG Sessions’ Right Hand Man Wants to Amp Up the Drug War

The uncertainty surrounding the Trump Administration’s policy direction on cannabis enforcement has had a chilling effect across the industry. Now, with the elevation of an avowed drug warrior to AG Jeff Sessions’ right hand man, prospects seem grim for a “hands-off” DOJ when it comes to cannabis.


Over at the U.S. Justice Department, the people president Trump has entrusted with federal law enforcement are making fewer, smaller waves than press secretary, Sean Spicer — whose most recent high-profile blunder saw him favorably comparing Adolf Hitler to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad — but they’ve proven no less willing to go against the grains of data and public opinion.

Despite a near-historic low crime rate, Trump has repeatedly invoked a need to return to an era of “law and order.” His attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has claimed that marijuana legalization has led to a crime spike — an assertion that has no basis in fact.

When a criminal justice reform bill appeared in the Senate in 2015 — a bill (introduced by Republicans) that would have given judges more flexibility when determining sentences and reduce mandatory minimums — Sessions led an ultimately successful effort to defeat it.

And in the case of Steven H. Cook, Sessions’s new point man on domestic policy, the Trump Administration has found a career prosecutor who believes fully in the goodness and effectiveness of the nation’s drug war — and, in the age of legalized marijuana, wants to revive it.

It is difficult to argue that the drug war has been good to America. By every metric, it has failed to do little more than criminalize several generations of Americans — mostly poor people of color — at great cost to the Treasury.

America incarcerates more people, in both sheer numbers and per capita, than any other nation on earth—at a cost of $80 billion.

Sentencing nonviolent drug offenders to prison certainly has not led to fewer people using drugs, as the widening opiate epidemic proves. Meanwhile, innocent people are injured and killed in violent, military-style SWAT raids carried out by police, whose standing and authority are subsequently diminished.

This is no bug, according to Cook, a former police officer who later became a federal prosecutor in Tennessee — it’s a feature.

“The federal criminal justice system simply is not broken,” Cook said, in public, at a criminal-justice panel convened last year by the Washington Post. “In fact, it’s working exactly as designed.”

Cook, as the Post’s Sari Horwitz reported over last weekend, is now advising Sessions on how to reshape federal law enforcement policy — policy that will center around undoing what limited reforms are already underway, and ramping up the drug war to heights not seen since the 1980s.

In the final years of his term, President Barack Obama did more than any other recent president to acknowledge the drug war’s high human cost. He visited inmates in a federal penitentiary. He signed laws undoing sentencing disparities, which punished offenses related to crack cocaine far more severely than powder cocaine. And he allowed states to legalize marijuana and regulate commercial cannabis industries without interference.

When Sessions sets out to “undo the criminal justice policies of Obama and former attorney general Eric Holder,” reforms which included federal review of troubled police departments (precipitated, in turn, only by videotaped encounters with police), Cook — a fan of mandatory minimum sentences, including lifetime sentences for first-time offenders without a record of violent crime — will be his foot soldier, in the trenches, doing the dirty work.

From the Post:

“The two men are eager to bring back the national crime strategy of the 1980s and ’90s from the peak of the drug war, an approach that had fallen out of favor in recent years as minority communities grappled with the effects of mass incarceration.”

Here, it’s important to note that Cook, relatively unknown in Washington and a total stranger to the American public, is not a fanatic from the lunatic fringe of the justice world. Other federal prosecutors around the United States — the assistant U.S. attorneys, as in the career lawyers who outlast presidents, not the political appointees in nominal control of each district office — thought enough of Cook to elect him president of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys.

At the same time, elected officials are expected to be the bulwark against overzealous law enforcement officers. Instead, remarkably, Trump Administration officials are empowering them.

TELL US, are you concerned by the elevation of Cook in the DOJ?

Chris Roberts has written about medical cannabis, drug policy, and legalization ever since spending a few months in Humboldt County in 2009, with bylines for the San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner, and SF Weekly. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @cbloggy.

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