Will Jeff Sessions Try to Reverse Two Decades of Progress?
On Monday, Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee to give testimony on how he would approach the office of attorney general. When news broke that President-elect Donald Trump had selected Sessions to the nation’s top law enforcement position, many in the cannabis industry felt this was a worst-case scenario. He has a long track record of vehement opposition to marijuana legalization and sentencing reform. As a sitting U.S. senator in the majority party, it’s quite likely that he will be confirmed. The hands-off approach of the Obama Administration when it comes to state cannabis laws — something few 2016 presidential candidates wanted to take issue with — is now in question. Sessions’ hearing was the first opportunity to gain a sense of how the federal government may treat states whose laws defy the federal prohibition on cannabis.
His opening statement included an ominous note that harkened back to a time of harsher, less nuanced attitudes toward recreational drugs.
“Illegal drugs flood across our southern border and into every city and town in the country, bringing violence, addiction, and misery,” Sessions said.
To Sessions, there seems to be no positive or even neutral use of any illegal drug. It’s also telling that he describes all illegal substances collectively as “drugs,” with no stated differentiation between cannabis and heroin.
Sessions fielded one question about state cannabis laws, from Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy (who focused on medical marijuana in his question), and his answer provided no insight at all into how he will act as attorney general.
“I won’t commit to never enforcing federal law, Senator Leahy,” Sessions replied. “I think some of [the Obama-era guidelines] are truly valuable in evaluating cases. Using good judgment about how to handle these cases will be a responsibility of mine. I know it won’t be an easy decision, but I will try to do my duty in a fair and just way.”
Sessions is right that he has a tough choice in front of him: does he try to stand in the path of two decades worth of progress? From his past statements, it certainly seems that he’d like to. Last April he spoke about the danger of states like Colorado liberalizing marijuana laws and the need to promote the message that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.”
On the other hand, Sessions can’t simply wave away medical cannabis laws in over half the states in the U.S., nor can he wish away the laws of eight states that have now voted to legalize weed. Any effort to roll back state cannabis laws will be tremendously expensive and controversial. Furthermore, more than half the country now supports pot legalization, and any such actions would likely be unpopular. It’s worth noting that Trump himself seems to prefer a non-interventionist approach similar to the one taken by Obama and his attorney generals.
A key player in all of this is California. The nation’s richest, most populous state voted for legalization in November and state regulators have one year to establish retail standards and issue licenses. With a robust medical cannabis market already, legalization in California is expected to grow the national cannabis market by billions of dollars. Once the recreational market in California is established, fighting it would be like fighting the wine industry in France.
Sessions comment at his Judiciary Committee hearing seemed to acknowledge this. While he would probably like to enforce federal law, he will have plenty more on his plate, and the cannabis movement may have grown past the point that the federal government can control it. Besides, the U.S. government never had much success at reigning in marijuana when it was universally illegal.
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