Why Jeff Sessions is Threatening to Crack Down on Marijuana

by Mike Ludwig, Truthout | Report –

Attorney General Jeff Sessions told a gathering of law enforcement officials in Richmond, Virginia last week that legalizing marijuana would not make the United States “a better place,” and he is “astonished” by the suggestion that cannabis could be used to combat the nation’s “heroin crisis.” Two days later, New Mexico — which has suffered from by high rates of opiate-related deaths for years — moved to do just that.

On Friday, New Mexico’s legislature approved a bill that would make patients diagnosed with opiate disorders eligible for the state’s medical marijuana program. The idea already has the blessing of the state’s Medical Advisory Board, and if approved by the governor, New Mexico would become the first state to specifically to put opiate disorders on its list of conditions that can be treated with cannabis products.

A growing field of research suggests that medical cannabis can be used for opiate replacement therapy and as a safer substitute for prescription painkillers, resulting in dramatic drops in dependency, overdose deaths and hospitalizations. In some parts of the country, patients with opiate disorders are already being treated with cannabis products.  Last year, researchers echoed findings in earlier studies and determined that the number of prescriptions filled by Medicare dropped significantly in states with medical marijuana programs.

The findings, along with New Mexico’s innovative legislation, are cause for excitement in the worlds of medicine and drug reform as the US confronts an opiate overdose epidemic. But for ultra-conservatives like Sessions, de-stigmatizing marijuana — and suggesting that it could help solve drug-related problems instead of create them — is an affront to the longstanding tradition of demonizing drugs and drug users in the name of the war on drugs. This decades-long war has cost over $1 trillion and greatly expanded the power of law enforcement at the expense of marginalized people, and Sessions seems reluctant to give that power up now that he is the nation’s top cop.

Hooked on “Just Say No” and “Reefer Madness”

In Richmond, Sessions acknowledged that his beliefs about drugs may be “unfashionable,” but that doesn’t matter because lives are at stake. His prepared remarks were posted online before the event, and he reportedly veered off script, skipping a line declaring marijuana use to be “only slightly less awful” than heroin after catching some flack on Twitter. The prepared speech is still available on the Justice Department’s website.

“Sessions is basically saying [that] legalizing marijuana will increase our rates opiate deaths — in fact, it’s the reverse,” said Emily Kaltenbach, a reform strategist for the Drug Policy Alliance in New Mexico. “He’s not recognizing that, in fact, marijuana is an exit drug, not a gateway drug.”

Sessions, who called for a return to anti-drug programs like Nancy Reagan’s failed “Just Say No” campaign of the 1980s and ’90s, is apparently nostalgic for the “reefer madness” of yesteryear. Marijuana is far less addictive than opiates, and it does not cause debilitating physical withdrawals like those suffered by people with opiate use disorders. In 2015, 33,000 people nationwide died of opiate an overdose, while the number of marijuana overdose deaths stayed at a steady zero. The medical marijuana industry now offers an array of treatments, including smokeless medicines and low-THC products that cause minimal intoxication.

This isn’t the first time the nation’s new attorney general has seemed out of touch when it comes to drugs. Drug policy reformers fiercely opposed Sessions’ confirmation, citing his career-long history of favoring mass incarceration over drug treatment and recovery. Most recently, he helped block bipartisan sentencing reform in the Senate, which many advocates say would be an important step toward scaling back the war on drugs and its brutal impact on communities of color.

Critics say Sessions’ harsh policies fell hardest on Black folks when he served as attorney general of Alabama, and he has a history of making racist statements. For example, Sessions once remarked that he thought the Klu Klux Klan was “OK until I found out that they smoked pot.”

A Federal Crackdown on Marijuana?

It’s no surprise that the legal cannabis industry, which is projected to bring in more than $21 billion in revenue by 2021, has been anxious since President Trump nominated Sessions to be attorney general. Marijuana is still illegal under federal law, although the federal government has generally refrained from enforcing those laws in the 29 states that have legalized marijuana in some form. The cannabis industry’s anxiety shot through the roof a couple of weeks ago when White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer suggested that there could be “greater enforcement” under the Trump administration.

A Congressional budget rider currently blocks federal interference with state medical programs, so New Mexico’s move to treat opiate disorders with cannabis is probably safe for now, but Spicer’s comments suggested that the Justice Department may crack down on recreational marijuana in the eight states where it’s legal. He also suggested that marijuana could contribute to the “opiate addiction crisis,” a statement that flies in the face of the latest science, as critics quickly pointed out.

Sessions allayed some of these fears last week, telling reporters that the Justice Department does not have the resources to do local police work on marijuana. He also said the so-called “Cole memo” that clarified the Obama administration’s priorities on marijuana enforcement in 2013 is “valid.” The memo directs federal law enforcement away from marijuana businesses that comply with state laws and to focus instead on “criminal gangs,” distribution to minors, violence and growing operations on federal land. Sessions did say he has “some different ideas” in addition to the memo but has not elaborated.

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Reprinted with permission from Truthout