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 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.
Justin Strekal, the policy director at the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), agreed that the Cole memo leaves plenty of room for federal interference and enforcement at the state level. He pointed to Gov. Butch Otter of Idaho, a prohibition state bordered by states with legal weed. Otter, a Republican, recently called on President Trump to crack down on marijuana and correct the "utter lack of consistency displayed by the Obama administration."
Plus, there's nothing stopping the Justice Department from scrapping the Cole memo altogether and sending threatening letters to state attorneys general, which could freeze the legal market in place.
"Even under the guidelines of the Cole Memo, there is sufficient enough leeway for the Department of Justice under Jeff Sessions to broadly interpret its intent and chill the nascent medical and adult use marijuana markets," Strekal told Truthout. "While there is no enforceable mechanism for the Justice Department to re-criminalize state-by-state policy, their ability to stymie the progress made and use fear-mongering to discourage future victories is real."
So what would a marijuana crackdown look like under Sessions? The short answer from marijuana advocates is that we just don’t know yet. Although Sessions has a dismal track record when it comes to criminal legal reforms and racial justice, his Justice Department has not signaled that it will stray too far from policies put forth by the Obama administration, at least when it comes to legalized weed. Under Obama, the feds generally left legitimate businesses in legal states alone, but continued an aggressive campaign to disrupt the black market.
"The question is not whether or not an attorney general likes marijuana … it’s a question of what his policy will be with regard to enforcing federal law in states that have adopted laws regulating marijuana," said Mason Tvert, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project. He added that sensational headlines declaring an oncoming crackdown could have a chilling effect on legal businesses and states considering reforms.
However, advocates aren't only concerned about legal marijuana businesses; they're concerned about all the people who are criminalized because of prohibition. More than 600,000 people were arrested for marijuana violations in 2015, more than any other illicit drug. Marijuana use is roughly the same among Black and white people, but Black people are nearly four times as likely to be arrested, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Even in states where marijuana is legal for adults, Black and brown youth under the legal age are being arrested at higher rates than their white counterparts.
Moreover, the Trump administration could leverage marijuana prohibition in its push to expand the police state and target undocumented immigrants. The administration has already initiated a brutal immigration crackdown, and Strekal said that Latino communities could become targets for marijuana enforcement and racist police tactics such as "stop and frisk" as part of broader efforts to increase deportations of undocumented immigrants. Latinos made up an alarming 77 percent of those sentenced for federal marijuana offenses last year, mostly for trafficking, and 56 percent of those sentenced were non-citizens, according to NORML. Under Trump's recent executive orders, any undocumented person charged with or even suspected of committing a crime is a priority for deportation.
Kaltenbach pointed to other orders that Trump has issued, including one calling on federal authorities to dismantle international cartels and put a stop to drug and human trafficking. Sessions has vowed to do just that, and he indicated that low-level drug distributers could be targeted in the process. Sessions' calls to ramp up criminal enforcement of drug laws comes as local police forces are becoming increasingly militarized and engaging in violent drug raids.
"How does he define sellers and trafficking? There are a lot of subsistence dealers in our country that may fall into that category, and they may have addiction issues themselves or are just trying to support their families," Kaltenback said. "I am very concerned about that group of people, and how they will be folded into his policies."
Strekal said that 71 percent of voters now support a state's right to legalize, so the Trump administration is not expected to raid law-abiding marijuana dispensaries in Colorado or Washington at the risk of provoking public backlash. But there are plenty of ways the Justice Department can use federal and state laws criminalizing marijuana to target individuals and neighborhoods, especially communities of color, which have long suffered the most casualties in the war on drugs. As long as marijuana prohibition is on the books, Strekal said, it provides a vehicle to treat certain people as "second-class citizens."
"A 25-year-old can [legally] buy a joint in Colorado, but that does nothing for the 25-year-old caught with a joint in Georgia and the felony charge that comes with it," Strekal said.