With President-elect Donald Trump’s selection of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) for US attorney general, Americans are finally getting a clearer picture of what the federal government’s approach to cannabis might look like under his administration. Ending days of heated speculation, Trump on Tuesday morning officially nominated Sessions for the role, sparking worries among legalization advocates and cannabis industry leaders.
Sessions, who served as a US attorney in Alabama during the Reagan administration, was a big fan of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign, and has lamented the spread of legalization to states around the nation. Ahead of this year’s election, as nine states prepared to vote on cannabis legalization measures, he said at a Senate hearing that “I can’t tell you how concerning it is for me, emotionally and personally, to see the possibility that we will reverse the progress that we’ve made.”
At that same April 5 hearing, Sessions opined that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.”
“It was the prevention movement that really was so positive,” he said, “and it led to this decline. The creating of knowledge that this drug is dangerous, it cannot be played with, it is not funny, it’s not something to laugh about, and trying to send that message with clarity, that good people don’t smoke marijuana.”
As the nation’s top law enforcement official, the attorney general has a great deal of power over the handling of federal cannabis laws. Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, who have held the position during the Obama administration, crafted and then upheld the Cole memo. That document established a policy of permitting states like Colorado, Washington, and Oregon to carry out regulated adult-use legalization so long as they stayed within certain parameters. The Cole memo is just that, though—a memo establishing policy. It is not a law, and it could be reversed by the next attorney general as early as January.
Washington insiders see the appointment of Sessions as an indication of Trump’s intention to tighten immigration policies and deport people who entered the country illegally, but many in the cannabis community also fear he could also pose an existential threat to state-legal cannabis programs, both medical and adult-use.
“Jeff Sessions is a drug war dinosaur, which is the last thing the nation needs now.” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “Those who counted on Donald Trump’s reassurance that marijuana reforms ‘should be a state issue’ will be sorely disappointed. And not just Democrats but the many Republicans as well who favor rolling back the war on drugs had better resist this nomination.”
Current AG Loretta Lynch, while not a legalization proponent, made waves in September by acknowledging, finally, that cannabis is not a gateway drug. Sessions, on the other hand, retains full faith in 1980s-style anti-drug campaigns, Reason editor Jacob Sullum noted.
“This is not the first time that Sessions, who served as a U.S. attorney during the Reagan administration, has pined for the days of Just Say No,” Sullum wrote. “But crediting Nancy Reagan for a decline in drug use that began before she latched onto her pet cause is scientifically problematic, and so are the messages Sessions wants the youth of America to hear—especially the idea that ‘good people don’t smoke marijuana,’ which condemns at least two-fifths of the population (and probably more like half, allowing for underreporting by survey respondents).”
Last week’s elections made clear a number of things about the nation. Among them, it showed that cannabis legalization—especially around medical marijuana—is no longer a partisan issue. In regions around the country, a strong turnout by Trump voters actually helped push legalization measures past the finish line. If Sessions uses the DOJ as a hammer to crush state cannabis programs, he’ll be at odds with one of the few mandates to come out of the Nov. 8 election—as well as the cannabis-friendly conservative voters who helped put Trump in office.
Some of Republican elected officials have already expressed opposition to Sessions’ stance on cannabis. Alabama state Rep. Allen Peake, a vocal proponent of medical cannabis in that state, told Leafly he was “surprised” by the nomination, which he said “gives me great concern because of his apparent negative stance toward medical marijuana.”
“Hopefully that issue will be brought up during the nominating process,” Peake continued, “and we can hold President Trump to his word that he is in support of medical marijuana.”
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