Jeff Sessions Starts the Revolution


Today will be remembered as the day that Attorney General Jeff Sessions fired the first shot in a new revolution. The end will come with the next presidential election (if not sooner), and will probably result in federal rescheduling or legalization of cannabis, and the removal of the old, white Republican men in congress and the White House, whose thinking is at odds with most of Americans.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is rescinding a key Obama-era policy that allowed states to regulate their own legal marijuana, right on the heels of the historic kickoff to legalization in California this week.

The policy, known as the Cole Memo, was rescinded on Thursday. The 2013 policy laid out the precedent that the Department of Justice would not prosecute marijuana businesses and users in states where it was legal, and would focus on more serious drug offenses instead—like organized crime and sales to minors.

The Sessions memo, one page long, doesn’t offer any indication of what those priorities could be. But Sessions himself has made no secret of his hatred of marijuana and his belief that it’s a moral rot that “good people” stay away from. He has said that marijuana—a drug that cannot cause overdoses—is “only slightly less awful” than heroin—a drug that kills thousands of Americans every year. Sessions has also allegedly said that he thought the terrorist group the Ku Klux Klan was “OK until I found out they smoked pot.” Trump, uncharacteristically, has been mostly silent about his thoughts on pot legalization.

According to Steve Davenport, a researcher on cannabis policy at the RAND Corporation, it’s unlikely Sessions could do much to hurt the medical marijuana world for now, thanks to the Rohrabacher-Bluemenauer Amendment passed in 2014 as a part of a spending bill; it prevents the Department of Justice from spending funds to interfere with medical marijuana state laws. However, the amendment is temporary and needs to be re-approved every fiscal year.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., posted a statement regarding Sessions' move, which ends an Obama-era policy that made it easier for states to make recreational marijuana use legal.

"By attacking the will of the American people, who overwhelmingly favor marijuana legalization, Jeff Sessions has shown a preference for allowing all commerce in marijuana to take place in the black market, which will inevitably bring the spike in violence he mistakenly attributes to marijuana itself," Rohrabacher said. "He is doing the bidding of an out-of-date law enforcement establishment that wants to wage a perpetual weed war and seize private citizens' property in order to finance its backward ambitions."

Several states, most recently California, allow recreational use of marijuana. Rohrabacher said Sessions' directive, which gives federal prosecutors the power to enforce federal drug laws in states where marijuana is legal, goes against the Constitution.

"This is a profound misreading of the Constitution, which allows states, not the heavy-handed federal government, to determine such issues," he said.

Rep. Earl Blumenthal (D-OR), one of Congress’s biggest advocates for legalization, blasted the "outrageous" new guidelines as "perhaps one of the stupidest decisions the Attorney General has made” in a statement. “One wonders if Trump was consulted – it is Jeff Sessions after all – because this would violate his campaign promise not to interfere with state marijuana laws," Blumenthal said.

The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, in Washington, D.C., issued a statement condemning the decision. "This action flies in the face of sensible public policy and broad public opinion. The American people overwhelmingly support the legalization of marijuana and oppose federal intervention in state marijuana laws by an even wider margin," it said.

Sessions’ ability to easily do away with the memo should provide a important lesson to pro-pot advocates, Daniel Shortt, a Seattle lawyer who works with clients in the cannabis industry, told me.

“The thing to push for is something beyond a piece of paper. I mean, all we’ve had is a memo—a non-legally enforceable document... If we want lasting real change, that means the law has to change. Really, that’s the end game. There has to be some change in the Controlled Substance Act that removes marijuana from the schedule of prohibited substances,” Shortt said.

“So voters can look at their representatives and senators and see where they stand on this issue—because that’s where the most impact will come from,” he added.

It makes no sense for the Trump administration to reverse this long standing, successful policy directive. Over the past years, over 150,000 jobs have been created in the legal cannabis market.

Regulated statewide marijuana markets have provided an economic boost to numerous cities and states — leading to increased tax revenues, tourism, and home values. At the same time, these laws have not been associated with serious adverse public health consequences.

Today, one in five Americans resides in a jurisdiction where the adult use of cannabis is legal under state statute, and the majority of citizens reside someplace where the medical use of cannabis is legally authorized.

It is time for congressional representatives in these districts to step up and defend the rights of their constituents – many of whom rely on these policies for their health and welfare, and who have repeatedly demanded federal legislators to once and for all amend federal law in a manner that comports with cannabis’ rapidly changing legal and cultural status.

America's federalist system does not mandate states to be beholden to the intellectually and morally bankrupt policy that is marijuana prohibition. The 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides that all "powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people," leading former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis to famously opine, "[A] state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”

Despite this last gasp attempt by the Justice Department to revert to the failed policies of the past, marijuana is here to stay and ought to be regulated and controlled accordingly.

At the state and local level, public sentiment and common sense are driving necessary and long overdue changes in cannabis policies for millions of Americans. Our nation’s longstanding federalist principles demand that we respect voters’ wishes and that we permit these policies to evolve free from the heavy hand of Jeff Sessions and the Justice Department.