Although a violent crime task force appointed earlier this year by the Department of Justice has recommended the federal government not interfere with states that have legalized marijuana, the question of whether U.S Attorney General Jeff Sessions will still impose some kind of “federal pot crackdown” remains unanswered.
At this point, what comes next from the Justice Department with respect to the issue is anyone’s guess.
Public policy expert W. David Bradford, who recently penned a piece for the Washington Post entitled “Why Jeff Sessions Is Going to Lose His War Against Cannabis,” believes Sessions’ energy on the subject could be put to a much better use.
In a segment with NPR’s On Point, Bradford told show host Tom Ashbrook that instead of trying to figure out how to stop the legalization movement from becoming more widespread, Sessions should, using his authority as attorney general, give serious consideration to the science surrounding the cannabis plant in an effort to push the issue to higher ground.
Bradford pointed out that the language of the DEA’s Controlled Substances Act actually gives the U.S. Attorney General the power to remove cannabis from its Schedule I listing.
“It is actually his purview and his responsibility to assess the scientific evidence and decide whether drugs like cannabis should stay on the schedule that they are on,” Bradford said.
But in spite of the pressure coming from influential organizations like the National Conference of State Legislatures, which, as of Monday, is once again urging the federal government to eliminate the cannabis plant from the Controlled Substances Act, Sessions’ actions over the course of the past few months do no suggest that he is veering in that direction.
“Over the past month, he has asked Congress for permission to prosecute medical cannabis suppliers who are acting in accordance with their state’s laws, reauthorized civil asset forfeiture (a highly controversial practice used in drug cases), and announced his desire to start a new ‘war on drugs’,” Bradford wrote in his piece for the Post.
Bradford is referring to a letter Sessions sent out to Congressional leaders earlier this year, begging them to jettison their support for a popular federal spending rider that has prevented the Justice Department from prosecuting the medical marijuana community for the past few years.
There has been speculation that Sessions simply needs the rider to be tossed out of next year’s budget before he can begin to formulate a solid plan to eradicate legal marijuana.
But, according to Smart Approaches to Marijuana director Kevin Sabet, one of the most outspoken opponents of the legal cannabis industry in the United States, Sessions’ recent request to free up the funds locked down by the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment is really nothing out of the ordinary.
Sabet, who served as one of President Obama’s senior drug advisors, said during his talk time with On Point that every Justice Department, including Obama’s, has fought to keep all of their funding in place.
“No DOJ wants their funds restricted,” Sabet said.
But when it comes to “if” Attorney General Sessions will eventually impose a marijuana crackdown, Sabet, who admits he doesn’t “want to be putting people behind bars for smoking pot or giving them criminal records,” believes Sessions will find a middle of the road, one that perhaps reiterates every states right to decriminalize possession of the herb. Sabet, who is worried legal marijuana is on its way to becoming the next “Big Tobacco,” would ultimately like to see the demise of legal sales.
But will Sessions work with legal marijuana states to find some kind of middle ground on marijuana policy? It doesn't seem likely.
Over the past week, Sessions has been corresponding with officials in legal states, mostly criticizing their inability to comply with the Obama-era Cole Memo, which has allowed statewide legalization to take place without heavy interference from the federal government.
The gist of Sessions’ letters is that these states are doing a poor job keeping up their end of the bargain with respect to the memo. The language comes complete with snide overtones that could be construed as threatening.
“Congress has determined that marijuana is a dangerous drug and that the illegal distribution and sale of marijuana is a crime,” Sessions wrote in his letters to Colorado, Oregon and Washington. “The Department remains committed to enforcing the Controlled Substances Act in a manner that efficiently applies our resources to address the most significant threats to public health and safety.”
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson recently told On Point that any state that received a letter from Sessions should be “nervous.”
“His most recent letter was sharply critical of Washington state and by extension all the states who have legalized marijuana should be nervous with a letter like that,” he said.
Ferguson, who called the letter he received “factually inaccurate,” says, “it’s hard to take [Sessions] seriously if he relies on such outdated information.”
Unlike the previous administration, Sessions has so far refused to meet with state officials in face-to-face meetings to discuss the realities of marijuana legalization in their respective jurisdictions.
Since taking over at the Justice Department, Sessions has maintained that his only mission is to enforce federal law, including those pertaining to marijuana. Sessions even said during his confirmation hearing in January that if marijuana enforcement “is not desired any longer, Congress should pass a law to change the rule.”
However, Congress isn’t really budging on the issue. There are presently several bills in both chambers that could prevent Sessions or any other future administrations from attacking the core of legitimate pot commerce, but none of the bills have enough support to so much as inspire a hearing.
If a federal marijuana crackdown does eventually come to pass, regardless of its magnitude, it will ultimately be the fault of our elected officials – not Attorney General Sessions.