Attorney General Jeff Sessions loves the federal drug war– so much so that he’s working on a plan to go after states which have legalized marijuana in recent years. Despite his zeal to rid the nation of dangerous pot smokers, the AG recently admitted he is a little bummed that more Americans aren’t down with the nanny state.
During a speaking engagement at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona on Tuesday, Sessions referenced the swift public backlash that emanated recently as a result of his tough talk on marijuana reform.
“When they nominated me for attorney general, you would have thought the biggest issue in America was when I said, ‘I don’t think America’s going to be a better place if they sell marijuana at every corner grocery store,’” Sessions said, according to a report in AZ Central. “(People) didn’t like that; I’m surprised they didn’t like that.”
Sessions, however, artfully minimized the extent to which he evidently wishes to reverse gains made by marijuana legalization advocates in recent years.
Currently, justice Department officials acting under the attorney general’s commands are reviewing the Cole Memorandum, a set of 2013 guidelines key to keeping federal drug enforcers from harassing marijuana businesses and users in legal pot states.
The Cole Memo, along with FinCEN guidelines adopted under the Obama administration, were heralded as the end of aggressive federal marijuana enforcement efforts that would allow state legalization experiments to run their course.
And as we previously reported, governors hailing from the first four states to legalize marijuana recently sent a letter to Sessions asking him to leave the guidelines, which are used as the basis for many of those states’ marijuana regulatory efforts, alone.
Still, Sessions maintains that marijuana is a dangerous drug. His argument, however, is focused less on the effects the plant has on end users than it is his belief that marijuana trade enriches violent criminals.
And that gets to the heart of what people are actually reacting to when they denounce Sessions’ anti-pot position.
Sessions has appointed former federal prosecutor and cop Steven Cook as one of his top advisers at the Justice Department. You probably haven’t heard much about Cook to date — but you certainly will be getting to know him as the Sessions DOJ irons out its criminal justice style.
That’s because Cook is a staunch supporter of the tough crime policies which dominated in the 1980s and 90s. Those policies brought things like an exaggerated focus on drug quantity in possession cases and the steep mandatory minimum sentencing requirements that are much to blame with the nation’s sprawling prison population.
Later reviews of the policies concerning drug possession revealed that lawmakers at the time had little understanding of just how harshly the laws they were making would affect small time users.
Here’s how Eric Sterling, who served as chief counsel to the House as lawmakers created some of the nation’s toughest drug laws in the mid-80s, put it in a 1999 interview with This American Life:
The numbers that we picked in the Judiciary Committee, the 20 grams of crack cocaine, would have triggered a five-year federal minimum. The Republicans in the Senate dropped the 20 grams to five grams and raised the– from 5 years to 40 years because the Republicans were going to be tougher.
There was, again, no sense of, it’s not a large quantity of drugs from a consumption point of view. It’s a very small quantity. And these are folks who have really no clear sense of the dynamics of the business enough to make a just determination. When you’re just picking a number–
Sterling was so disgusted by the legislative one-upmanship that was behind laws that would certainly ruin the lives of many people who’d committed largely victim-less crimes that he went on to quit his job and found the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. The organization is a leading voice in the argument against doubling down on failed prohibition and incarceration efforts in attempts to stem the violence associated with the illegal drug trade.
Sessions and Cook are pushing in exactly the opposite direction. And there concern with liberalized state marijuana policies shouldn’t be at all surprising.
Sessions’ key argument for harsh drug laws, remember, is that the drug trade is steeped in violence. But state initiatives to legalize pot are revealing that the violence is not a symptom of the substances; it’s a consequence of prohibition policies.
As the libertarian CATO Institute points out:
It’s true that the black market for drugs relies on cash transactions and violence, but Cook and Sessions ignore the obvious implication. The drug market has to rely on cash transfers and violence because drugs are illegal. Drug market violence is a function of the market’s illegality, not of the drugs themselves. The same was true of alcohol distributors under prohibition. In 2017 if two alcohol distributors have a dispute, they settle it in court. If two alcohol distributors in 1929 had a dispute, they settled it on the street corner with Tommy guns and Molotov cocktails.
What’s worse about marijuana legalization for an anti-drug crusader like Sessions is that the government’s stereotype of a pot user falls apart when a bunch of middle management types or elderly pain suffers can buy the drug legally in a corner store.
The result of widespread changing attitudes about marijuana would ultimately be an entire rethinking of U.S. drug policy. For Sessions and others with similar professional backgrounds, that’s terrifying stuff. They aren’t afraid that the U.S. would fully legalize even the most dangerous substances creating chaos, crime and widespread death. What attorneys-turned-government-officials fear the most are criminal justice reforms that remove hefty charges for users. Prohibition, you see, creates a steady stream of revenue for the legal profession– members of which are disproportionately represented in government.
Think about it for a minute. Harsh drug policies currently make the government money and they make lawyers money, so obviously– despite drug war laws– they’re making dealers money. Drug dealing is a risky business, so it’s lucrative. Government creates the risk and the drug price inflation.
But take away government prosecution of drug possession and what exactly happens? Do the streets become overrun with murderers and passed out junkies? Nope. Murder, violence, theft, disorderly conduct, public intoxication, failing to care for offspring, etc. all remain illegal. Although, we’d likely see a drop in commission of those crimes because we’d have a smaller population of desperate people whose options are limited by the red X of past drug convictions. Diverting even a small portion of the funds currently used for the drug war to rehabilitation programs would further reduce that population.
There would, of course, remain many people who aren’t able to fully cope with the responsibility that goes along with total personal liberty — but it’s not as if that’s a problem government intervention has ever solved in the past. Insisting that the government can keep people from becoming addicts is simply dishonest. And it’s time for tough crime crusaders to admit that isn’t the goal.
But don’t look to Sessions in the search of the voice of reason.
“Our nation needs to say clearly once again that using drugs is bad,” he said last month. “It will destroy your life.”
If he wants to be more accurate to his intention, Sessions probably should have said: Our nation needs to say clearly once again that it will destroy your life for using drugs.