On January 4, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Cole Memo, an Obama-era directive that recommended a hands-off approach to the enforcement of federal marijuana laws in states that legalized it for recreational or medicinal use. Prior to the Cole Memo, federal authorities clashed routinely with legal pot businesses, especially in states like California. The memo substantially slowed the prosecution of state-sanctioned pot growers, sellers, and users. In rescinding the memo, Sessions declared his intent to re-escalate the war on pot.
The move comes at a time when states across the country, as well as the majority of the American people, are shifting their attitudes on cannabis. Twenty-nine states have legalized marijuana for medical use. Nine states, as well as Washington, D.C., have legalized the drug outright, with Vermont doing so just this week. Another 14 states have decriminalized it. New marijuana initiatives appear on state ballots every election cycle, and a full 61 percent of the American people favor legalization.
States with legalized marijuana have inspired envy. Colorado collected some $200 million in tax revenue from marijuana sales in 2017 and Forbes estimated the total collected taxes for all states would be $559 million. All the benefits come with seemingly minimal increased risk. In 2015 the Department of Transportation reported, “controlled studies have found lower (or no) elevated crash risk estimates” from marijuana use. Other studies show that legalization is correlated with lower crime.
Despite this, Sessions has long had hated marijuana and its users. According to congressional testimony from 1986, Sessions once lamented that he might like the Ku Klux Klan if they didn’t smoke pot. Thirty years later, in April 2016, then-Senator Sessions testified before Congress that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.” Sessions has yet to clarify whether he thinks the millions of law-abiding Americans for whom medical marijuana has brought relief from chemotherapy, glaucoma, arthritis, epilepsy, depression, and other issues are bad people.
Because of the fairly incontrovertible success of legalized marijuana, even Sessions’s fellow Republicans are pushing back against him. Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado said, “With no prior notice to Congress, the Justice Department has trampled on the will of the voters in CO and other states.” California Representative Dana Rohrabacher said, “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.” The conservative magazine National Review has published several articles criticizing the Justice Department’s marijuana policy, urging Sessions to meet with cancer patients and calling for legalization.
It’s not clear what President Trump, who is both the nation’s top Republican and Sessions’s boss, thinks of the Justice Department’s move. In 2016, Trump claimed to be a “states’ rights guy” who would leave the matter alone. He specifically said that he’d disagree with any attorney general who did otherwise. But Trump’s ideology is notoriously amorphous, and since then he has shown no real conviction on the matter.
But the real problem with Sessions’s war on pot goes beyond issues of states’ rights, the economy, or even healthcare. One of America’s greatest moral crises is mass criminalization and incarceration, and it is fueled in substantial part by the racist, draconian, and expensive War on Drugs.
More than $1 trillion has been spent fighting the War on Drugs since President Nixon declared it in 1970. Today, it costs an estimated $51 billion annually, with incalculable opportunity cost. Under the War on Drugs and the “tough on crime” initiatives of the 1990s, America’s incarceration rate has ballooned – from 329,000 in 1980 to an estimated 2.3 million today. America now has the world’s largest prison population, both in raw numbers and per capita. This over-incarceration, much of it for nonviolent drug offenses, has separated children from their families and devastated communities. It has disproportionately affected poor minorities, who often lack the resources to fight their charges and who are arrested at higher rates in the first place.
America’s very first anti-pot laws in the 1930s were widely understood to target Mexican immigrants and blacks, with “reefer madness” accused of driving users into uncontrollable fits of animal lust. Race-based drug policies continued into the 1980s with a 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powdered cocaine. Even today, blacks are arrested on marijuana charges almost four times more frequently than whites, despite both groups using the drug at approximately the same rate.
Drug laws have almost always been more about targeting the users than the drug itself. Sessions has said more than once that he simply doesn’t like people who smoke pot. His campaign against marijuana fits in perfectly with the Trump Administration’s broader rhetoric about minorities, immigrants, and crime. It also allows them to attack liberal political enemies – eight of the nine states with legalized recreational marijuana voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.
There is no rational justification for escalating marijuana enforcement. Pot, though not harmless, has zero recorded overdoses. Its medical and social benefits are only beginning to be tapped. Meanwhile, the Trump Administration has all but ignored the devastating opioid epidemic. This move against pot is not about protecting Americans from a dangerous drug. It’s about personal hatreds, a desire to trap more Americans in the prison-industrial complex, and a way to exact revenge on Trump’s political opponents – all at colossal taxpayer expense.