President-elect Donald Trump has offered the top spot in the Justice Department to U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, an ardent opponent of marijuana law reform, several news organizations are reporting.
As attorney general, Sessions would oversee federal prosecutors, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and other law enforcement agencies that would be responsible for any crackdown on marijuana businesses and consumers operating in compliance with state laws.
During the presidential campaign, Trump repeatedly pledged to respect state cannabis policies if elected president, though has shown himself willing to change his position on various issues over the years.
If Sessions becomes attorney general, which would require a confirmation vote by his fellow senators early next year, it will likely become much more challenging for marijuana law reform supporters to encourage the new president to keep his cannabis campaign pledges.
In a Senate hearing on the federal response to state marijuana laws in April, Sessions said, “good people don’t smoke marijuana,” and implied that even discussion of legalization could create a gateway effect to increased use of other drugs.
“We need grown ups in Washington to say marijuana is not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized, it ought not to be minimized, that it is in fact a very real danger,” he said. “You’ll see cocaine and heroin increase more than it would have, I think, had we not talked about it.”
Sessions, a former U.S. attorney, also criticized President Obama for his administration’s approach to the issue. “His lax treatment and comments on marijuana, it’s been obvious, it reverses 20 years almost of hostility to drugs, begun really, when Nancy Reagan started the ‘Just Say No’ program,” the senator said.
While Sessions was under consideration for a federal judgeship in 1986, a former deputy accused him of saying that the Ku Klux Klan “were OK until I found out they smoked pot.” Sessions later said the remark was an out-of-context joke, but it and other racially charged comments soon led to his nomination’s rejection by the Senate Judiciary Committee, a body on which he now sits as a member and which will consider his confirmation as the nation’s top law enforcement officer.
During last year’s confirmation hearing for Loretta Lynch, the current attorney general, Sessions questioned her about marijuana policy, forcefully pressing for more federal action on the issue in light of the relative leeway the Obama administration has given to states to implement their own laws.
“I hope that you will cease to be silent, because if the law enforcement officers don’t do this, I don’t know who will. And in the past, attorneys general and other government officials have spoken out and I think kept bad decisions from being made,” he said.
In a Senate floor speech earlier this year, Sessions slammed President Obama for admitting to previous drug use and downplaying its effects.
“You have to have leadership from Washington. You can’t have the President of the United States of America talking about marijuana like it is no different than taking a drink, saying I used marijuana when I was in high school and it is no different than smoking,” he said. “It is different. And you are sending a message to young people that there is no danger in this process. It is false that marijuana use doesn’t lead people to more drug use. It is already causing a disturbance in the States that have made it legal. I think we need to be careful about this.”
In a 2014 hearing, Sessions laid into FBI Director James Comey for implying he was thinking of loosening the bureau’s hiring restrictions on people who have used marijuana. “Do you understand that that could be interpreted as one more example of leadership in America dismissing the seriousness of marijuana use and that could undermine our ability to convince young people not to go down that dangerous path?” he asked.
In a separate hearing with then-Attorney General Eric Holder, Sessions used an anecdote about singer Lady Gaga to argue that President Obama has understated cannabis’s harms. “Lady Gaga said she is addicted to it and it is not harmless,” he said. “I hope that you will talk with the president, you’re close with him, and begin to push back, or pull back, on this position that I think is going to be adverse to the health of America.”
In another Senate floor speech, Sessions decried the rise of state marijuana legalization and harkened back to Reagan administration. “Now we have states legalizing it, and they are already talking about recriminalizing it. It is a mistake. We have seen that experiment before. Lives are at stake,” he said. “The federal government led the way with tough sentencing, eliminating parole, targeting dangerous drugs in effective ways, and states and local governments followed.”
Sessions’s past remarks clearly indicate he doesn’t support letting states set their own marijuana laws without federal interference, setting up an early potential conflict inside the new administration. Trump will have to decide how much rein to give the attorney general to go against his repeated campaign pledges.
“I really believe you should leave it up to the states. It should be a state situation,” Trump said during a campaign rally. “In terms of marijuana and legalization, I think that should be a state issue, state by state.”
Similarly, in an interview with a Denver TV station, he said, “I think it’s up to the states. I’m a states person. I think it should be up to the states, absolutely.”
And at the Conservative Political Action Conference Trump said that when it comes to state marijuana laws, “If they vote for it, they vote for it.”
Marijuana law reform advocates’ best hope may be that the administration views the issue through a political lens and decides that reversing clear pledges and mounting a federal effort to overturn broadly popular laws in a growing number of states would create fights it does not need, likely distracting harmfully from other issues the new president cares much more about.
Photo Courtesy of Allie Beckett.