Marijuana backers worry over AG Sessions

Marijuana backers worry over AG Sessions

Supporters of liberalizing marijuana laws worry their relationship with the federal government is about to get a lot more contentious as members of the incoming Donald Trump administration signal they will take a harder line on drug policy.

During the Obama administration, Attorneys General Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch agreed not to enforce some drug laws in states where marijuana is legal. That is likely to change under Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), President-elect Trump’s nominee to become attorney general.

Sessions is considered one of the staunchest pot opponents in the Senate, a hard-line conservative who once remarked that he thought the Ku Klux Klan was “OK” until he learned members smoked marijuana. At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing earlier this year, Sessions said he wanted to send a message that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.”

“Sessions doesn’t appear to have a very enlightened view about the war on drugs, so that’s somewhat discouraging,” said Pete Holmes, Seattle’s city attorney and one of the driving forces behind Washington’s decision to legalize marijuana for recreational use.

“When you hear the kind of knee-jerk biases expressed by a guy who will be the nation’s top law enforcement official, it’s scary.”

Supporters of liberalizing marijuana laws have scored big wins in recent years, as voters in both red and blue states have loosened marijuana laws. After November’s elections, more than half of states will allow the use of marijuana for medical purposes, and eight states will allow marijuana for recreational purposes. 

The legal marijuana industry is becoming a billion-dollar boon for businesses and investors and a reliable new source of revenue for cash-poor cities and states. Earlier this month, voters in Massachusetts, Maine, California and Nevada joined Washington, Colorado, Alaska, Oregon and the District of Columbia in legalizing marijuana for recreational use.

But marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, and pro-pot advocates have maintained an uneasy truce with the Justice Department under President Obama.

As attorney general, Sessions has a host of options for changing the federal government’s posture toward marijuana.

He could follow precedent set by Holder and Lynch and let states chart their own path, or, on the other extreme, he could tell governors that any state that issues a license to permit marijuana sales would stand in violation of the Controlled Substances Act. 

Sessions could revisit the Cole memo, the August 2013 memorandum written to federal prosecutors by then-deputy Attorney General James Cole that lays out the Justice Department’s priorities in prosecuting drug cases. The Cole memo allowed prosecutors to skip cases in states that institute regulatory and enforcement systems to oversee marijuana sales.

To legal pot opponents, the Cole memo — and other steps the Obama Justice Department has taken — is an abdication of responsibility to implement federal law.

“We want to see federal law enforced. I think a clear letter asking states to stand down until Congress changes the law makes the most sense, and I think governors in these states would gladly oblige,” said Kevin Sabet, who heads Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a group that opposes legalization.

The debate over marijuana legalization is a proxy, however imperfect, for the larger question of states’ rights.

Legal marijuana backers say they hope Sessions and Trump let the states experiment as the founders intended.

Sessions co-sponsored a bill introduced by Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) last year that would have allowed states to challenge proposed federal rules under the 10th Amendment to the Constitution, which reserves rights for the states. That gives some legal marijuana backers at least a glimmer of hope that the incoming administration won’t crack the whip.

“Voters in 28 states have chosen programs that shift cannabis from the criminal market to highly regulated, tax-paying businesses. Sen. Sessions has long advocated for state sovereignty, and we look forward to working with him to ensure that states’ rights and voter choices on cannabis are respected,” said Aaron Smith, who heads the National Cannabis Industry Association in Denver. 

But opponents of marijuana liberalization say they see their own encouraging signs that the tide toward legalization may be turning.

“We’ve all wondered whether the Trump presidency would be ‘states rights’ or ‘law and order’ when it comes to drugs,” Sabet wrote in an email. “The Sessions pick makes many of us think it may be the latter.”

Even with Sessions overseeing the Justice Department, legal marijuana proponents are likely to continue pursuing liberalization through ballot measures and state legislatures. 

Marijuana legalization measures are already circulating in Ohio, Texas, Mississippi and Missouri. Legislatures in states like New Jersey, Vermont, Delaware and Rhode Island are likely to take up marijuana legalization bills in upcoming legislative sessions.

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It’s high time: If we can legalize marijuana, why can’t we end the misguided War on Drugs?

America’s wasted more than $1 trillion on demonizing drugs, many of which, like weed, have real medical benefits

Thor Benson

It's high time: If we can legalize marijuana, why can't we end the misguided War on Drugs?

On Election Day, my home state of California voted to legalize recreational cannabis, as did Massachusetts, Maine and Nevada. So the 2016 elections represented a substantial victory for the legalization movement, which has managed to pass referendums in seven states. With 57 percent of the country now supporting marijuana legalization, according to Pew, it seems likely there will be a nationwide victory sometime in the next few years. However, the War on Drugs is far from over.

Even if marijuana is legalized throughout the United States, there will still be numerous drugs in this country that remain very much illegal, and Americans will suffer because of this. Drugs like psilocybin mushrooms, LSD and MDMA have all demonstrated great potential when it comes to medical benefits, and shown little potential for harm. Still, the idea of legalizing those drugs any time soon seems as likely as Donald Trump hosting a quinceañera.

“LSD, psilocybin and MDMA, when combined with psychotherapy, have tremendous medical potential for treating psychiatric illnesses in people for whom other treatments have failed,” Rick Doblin, founder and executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), told me in an email. “These psychedelic drugs need to be legalized, both through scientific drug development studies designed to obtain FDA approval for prescription use and through political means so that they are legalized for non-medical purposes like personal growth, spirituality, couples therapy, creativity, innovation, and celebratory experiences.”

Researchers in Switzerland found in 2014 that LSD can be helpful for patients dealing with end-of-life anxiety related to a terminal illness. The same sort of conclusion has been drawn for psilocybin. Psilocybin has also proven useful for treating severe depression. MDMA has shown great promise for treating PTSD, when used alongside psychotherapy. All of the drugs remain illegal in the United States, and there has been little effort to change that.

Let’s not stop there, though. The War on Drugs has cost America well over $1 trillion since it began under Richard Nixon. This war has been the main cause of our country’s mass incarceration problem. As it is often noted, we have 5 percent of the world’s population and roughly 25 percent of its prisoners. You cannot have a War on Drugs, you can only have a war on people. As Gore Vidal famously used to say of the War on Terror, you cannot have a war on a noun, as that is like saying you’re at war with dandruff. Too many can’t get jobs because of criminal records or lose decades of their lives over small offenses.

We must legalize all drugs. You cannot regulate a drug that is not legal, and you cannot stop addiction by throwing citizens in cages and putting in no effort to rehabilitate them. I am not arguing for the selling of meth and heroin at your local Target store, but I am arguing for a scenario where you are not put in cuffs for having one of those drugs in your pocket.

Portugal decriminalized all drugs nearly decades ago, and the country has not spiraled into hellfire and cannibalism. In fact, drug use decreased, drug-related deaths went down and the instances of HIV infections decreased severely. Of course, the country also initiated harm-reduction programs and invested in reducing addiction, but it appears decriminalizing the drugs didn’t turn every corner into a wanton cocaine party. Perhaps we could learn from this example.

Thanks to abuse of prescription painkillers, this country faces a widespread opioid crisis — and all those drugs are legal. While we divvied out legal pills that people didn’t really need to fill the pockets of greedheads, as Hunter S. Thompson called them, we locked up people using a different version of the same drugs. Many who got addicted to painkillers while on prescription turned to heroin when they couldn’t be prescribed them any more or couldn’t afford them. The whole system is toxic.

I’m calling for a true legalization movement. No longer should lives be ruined because of some minor drug experimentation or because a citizen who needed to make an extra buck sold some substances to a willing buyer. The legalization of marijuana will be a milestone, especially since it’s the most popular drug out there, but we cannot stop there. We should murder the War on Drugs and burn its cadaver. This “war” has been one of the biggest policy failures in American history, and we’ve known this for quite some time. Let’s grow up and move forward. We cannot call ourselves the land of the free when we represent the land of the detained.

More Thor Benson.

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