It’s fair to say that Jeff Sessions did not achieve his station in life by listening to reason.
As U.S. senator, Sessions achieved a reputation as a bizarre but ultimately harmless outsider with, ahem, retrograde views. As attorney general, when he is not being publicly excoriated by President Donald Trump for failing to use the Justice Department as a political tool, he’s been manipulating statistics to push a narrative that the U.S. is caught in the grip of a violent crime wave.
A polite way to describe Sessions’s fanaticism on issues like immigrant rights, gay marriage, and drug-policy reform would be to call him “inflexible.” Yet this hasn’t stopped John Chiang, California’s state treasurer, and a slew of other officials from states where cannabis is legal from attempting to bend the attorney general’s ear in a bid to, possibly, change his mind.
Last week, Chiang and treasurers from Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Illinois sent the attorney general a letter, officially requesting an audience to talk about cannabis. Specifically, the treasurers want advice from the Justice Department on how cannabis outfits might hope to legally use banks.
Tricky at best, banking for marijuana businesses has become impossible again, following Sessions’s decision on Jan. 4 to revoke a series of Obama-era memos that gave states and banking institutions of a modicum of legal cover.
Absent those memos, some banks have taken a conservative view of Justice Department attitudes towards the drug, going as far as to deny financial services to entities peripherally related to cannabis — as Wells Fargo did recently, when it closed down an Alaska-based marijuana testing lab. In the meantime, state-law abiding businesses have been forced to operate almost entirely in cash: paying their employees in cash; paying lawyers, contractors, and other vendors in cash and paying their state tax bills in cash, carefully delivering bags containing of thousands of dollars to state tax-collector offices.
Forcing otherwise law-abiding business to behave like cartel bosses on “Narcos” is not the best arrangement. (To say they’re acting like drug dealers isn’t even accurate; you can find street drug-dealers these days using Square and accepting Venmo payments, two cashless innovations not open to legal marijuana merchants.) It’s also not very safe, which may be the best angle for Chiang and others to get an in with the attorney general.
“Among the policy positives that could result [from a meeting] is greater public safety and more efficient collection of tax revenue,” the letter reads in part. “In this incredibly divisive time, the issues surrounding the legalization of cannabis provide a unique opportunity for policymakers, regulators, and law enforcement officials from all sides to meet and reach a consensus.”
Consensus. Agreement. The art of the deal, if you will. All very reasonable! But working against them is Sessions’s long and very unreasonable history with marijuana.
It was Sessions who scotched his chance at a federal judgeship during the Reagan years for a questionable “joke” about the Ku Klux Klan — good people in Sessions’s view, until he found out some of them were weedheads — and it was Senator Sessions who uttered the famous line that “good people” don’t “smoke marijuana.” More recently, Sessions declared marijuana only “slightly less awful” than heroin, a statement that relies on pure fantasy — or ideology — for a factual basis. The least you could say is that Sessions have proven agnostic in his embrace of unreason. His recent suggestion that people in chronic pain and thus a legitimate need for opiate-based painkillers pop a Tylenol and “tough it out” instead is, well, baffling and cruel in its unreasonableness.
But Chiang and company will try just the same. “Whether cannabis should be legal is not relevant to the simple fact that it now is in more than half of the states,” the letter adds, perhaps self-consciously. “These states represent a true cross-section of America. This is not just a blue state phenomenon, but includes purple and red states in every corner of our country.”
Notably, medical marijuana is indeed legal in the Deep South, though not in Sessions’s native Alabama. However, in nearby Arkansas, a voter-approved medical-marijuana system has launched and may offer patients viable access to decent medicine within a year.
It’s unlikely that Sessions will feel anything aside from disdain or outright hostility towards any delegation headed by someone from California, particularly California state government. California has sued the federal government an eye-popping and unprecedented 17 times since last year. And the Justice Department has answered in kind, filing its most recent lawsuit against California on Monday.
Sessions has yet to fulfill fears of a federal marijuana crackdown, but as the banking mess demonstrates, he can cause the cannabis industry ample headaches by merely staying in place. That’s the person Chiang and his colleagues want to meet in person, in order to talk some sense. We wish him luck.
TELL US, do you think state-legal cannabis businesses should be able to work with banks?