So, the federal government is going to crack down on pot, is it? Really? How exactly is that going to work? There are, what, more than 30 states that have either decriminalized it in some way, either legalizing medical marijuana with a doctor’s recommendation or out-and-out agreeing to make it legal for recreational use?
I’m thinking this cat is already out of the bag.
There are federal laws against marijuana cultivation, possession and distribution, but under the Obama administration prosecutors were instructed to adopt a hands-off approach in states where medical pot had been legalized. Now, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has created a cannabis conundrum by doing away with that approach. In a memo to federal prosecutors across the country, Sessions made his desire clear: no pot, nowhere, no how.
Sessions wants the decades-old federal law, which lists marijuana in the same dangerous and potentially deadly category as heroin – and more dangerous than crack cocaine and fentanyl – upheld by his force of federal prosecutors.
Again, the cat, the bag … and, how would that federal law even be enforced at this stage?
In elevating the matter from a mere state’s rights issue to a high-level national priority, Mr. Sessions may have outsmarted himself. His hard-line position has now galvanized influential members of Congress – both Democrats and Republicans – resulting in lots of chest pounding pronouncements of defiance. It’s a matter of money, big money, and constituents’ special interests.
First, the dollars and cents. The legal businesses that have sprung up around marijuana, pot, weed, hemp, cannabis, whatever you want to call it, were valued around $8 billion last year. That will likely rise to $9 billion this year. It is a runaway financial juggernaut that is adding hundreds of millions of dollars in fees and tax revenue to participating states’ coffers. More states are poised to jump on the legalization train in the near future.
And, about those constituents. Latest estimates are that 2.6 million Americans now rely on medical marijuana. They come from all walks of mainstream life. They are cancer and HIV-AIDS patients, seniors, epileptic children and voters battling chronic pain. Even the conservative American Legion backs access to cannabis for its members who suffer from PTSD and painful conditions borne of war.
So, what did Attorney General Jeff Sessions see as the road ahead when he made his announcement to reinstate the prohibition on pot? While hard-line law enforcement types may applaud the action, there seems to be little support anywhere else.
Members of Congress have called the action “heartless and cold” and one that “bulldozes over the will of the American people.” Indeed, in the latest Pew Research Center poll, six in 10 Americans believe marijuana should be legalized. One lawmaker from Florida, Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz, lectured the attorney general about priorities.
“He should focus his energies on prosecuting criminals, not patients,” Gaetz said.
Other lawmakers from states that benefit from relaxed marijuana laws are promising to retaliate. There are threats to stonewall all of Sessions’ future DOJ nominees, to squeeze his department’s budget and to include in the pending 2018 omnibus spending bill an amendment guaranteeing there will be no federal rollback of state cannabis laws.
The unspoken reality, of course, is that Congress is the legislative branch of government and at any time any member could easily introduce a bill to repeal the federal marijuana law. So far, none has been brave enough to come forward with such legislation. Guess it’s politically safer to shout from the sidelines.
This political showdown should have come as no surprise. States have been passing laws easing up on the prohibition against marijuana since 1973, when Oregon took the first plunge to decriminalize weed. In 1978, New Mexico became the first state to recognize the medical value of marijuana and allowed its limited use to treat cancer patients. The state fully legalized medical cannabis in 2007. And all the while official Washington stood on the sidelines, for the most part, and watched as state after state after state traveled down the path toward legal pot.
A predictable hue and cry from the public followed the attorney general’s recent marijuana announcement. Various newspaper editorials painted Sessions as a “lifelong anti-drug crusader” who ignores medical science and doesn’t realize how fighting the deadly opioid epidemic has already stretched his team of federal prosecutors to the limit. Patient-rights groups, civil liberties advocates and those who work within the legalized cannabis industry have all come out swinging against Sessions’ proposal.
Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III may want to reignite the old war on drugs with his conviction that marijuana should be subjected to the same legal penalties as heroin – but common sense reveals the limit to his power.
The sheer number of opponents standing at the ready to wage their own war makes it clear Sessions’ battle to once again criminalize marijuana appears doomed.