The Legalization of Pot in the United States and Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ One-Man Quest to Stop It
The speed with which the cultural taboo surrounding marijuana usage and legality is eroding in the United States is spectacular to behold, especially given the rather tense political environment often found there these days.
For those that may not know, in the United States there are two levels of law – federal and state law – and both work to regulate the lives of everyday citizens.
What’s the difference?
State law is passed by state legislatures and federal law comes directly from the federal government. Further, one type of law is idiosyncratic, applying only to the state within which it was enacted, while federal laws apply to all states within the United States.
It is on the state level that the prohibitions against marijuana are eroding, with medical marijuana measures in Colorado, Massachusetts, and California eventually giving way to legalization schemes sold through state cannabis-regulated marijuana dispensaries.
For those people who have watch the marijuana fight in the United States for some time, the speed with which many states have embraced de-criminalization and even advocated for full legalization on the federal level is quite astounding, especially given the country’s current conservative leadership.
Indeed, support for the legalization of marijuana has seemingly spilled over into both sides of the political aisle in the United States, marking a rare moment in which both conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats agree.
Even President Donald Trump has agreed with the move on the part of states to decriminalize marijuana.
But that doesn’t mean everyone in his administration is quite on his side, and that’s where the current snafu resides.
You see, for all the talk of legalizing marijuana and allowing the citizens of states to decide what is best for them, there are also politicians like Jeff Sessions, the former country senator from Alabama now Attorney General of the United States that has likened marijuana addiction to heroin use and who has also emphatically stated that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.”
As you can imagine, Mr. Sessions’ contrarian approach has won him few allies but many friends in the for-profit prison industry where he proposes sending most every person who is every caught with an illegal substance.
Contrary to statements from his own boss and movements within his own party to do the same, Jeff Sessions has made it his raison d’etre to squash marijuana legalization while he is attorney general. His belligerency on the subject is also putting a nascent industry at risk and stifling innovation in an area that is still heavily influenced by the black market. Basically, those states that are choosing to exercise their right to dictate their citizens’ lives are finding that life is difficult for them under the eye of a grasping federal government legal apparatus under Jeff Sessions.
And who can blame them?
Why would anyone want to start a business that could have its checking account closed for no reason or its product seized in a federal raid? Few entrepreneurs are willing to fight the federal government, and the attorney general’s office knows this.
The same memos that were issued by the Obama administration allowing the setup of marijuana dispensaries were summarily discarded by Sessions which in theory would allow his prosecutors more unlimited freedom in prosecuting people who distribute marijuana.
California Growers Association’s Hezekiah Allen says, “A lot of folks in the business and broader society didn’t realize how tenuous the Obama Administration’s safe space was…there is much more exposure to risk than there ever has been.”
Sessions for his part touts the program as a return to the rule of law even though these people are following applicable state laws. In an odd twist for Republicans, who typically advocate for states’ rights and the primacy of local politics over federal fiat, Jeff Sessions believes that the federal government’s authority in this area is supreme and unassailable. He’s also quite unwilling to listen to any states’ rights arguments to the contrary in a further bit of evidence that the philosophical underpinnings of his conservatism may be nothing more than platitudes.
After all, when there is such a “disconnect” between the federal and state situation, it behooves Congress to act, and they are – although slowly.
Again, many Republicans see this as a states’ rights issue, making Jeff Sessions’ incorrigible position difficult and untenable in the long run. Apart from this other run ins with Donald Trump, Jeff Sessions is easily one of the most embattled figures in the Trump administration, earning the ire of his boss for what President Trump has hinted at is a personality mismatch between the two. Trump has even threatened to fire Sessions on multiple occasions and he has reportedly offered his resignation as well. Neither have happened as of press.
For Democrats, Sessions’ focus on squashing legalized marijuana is quite strange given the country’s crippling and much more immediately pressing opioid epidemic. With so many Americans suffering from opioid addiction, which often stems from a legal prescription obtained by a physician, Sessions’ focus on marijuana legalization and all the ills of marijuana use further highlights his own personal agenda within the wider administration. Focused on “law and order” as well as “crime and punishment,” Sessions has largely eschewed the idea of treatment for these addicts and has focused instead of filling prisons with both addicts and dealers.
As you can imagine, this approach creates headaches for the new cannabis businesses out there. Michael Vitiello, a criminal law expert at the University of the Pacific, says that “Investments are less secure….They were insecure anyway, but potential forfeiture of assets and criminal prosecutions all make legitimate business more difficult.” When cannabis producers exit the black market and do all the paperwork required to participate in legal state markets, he adds, “what they’re saying is ‘Here I am.’”
This kind of heavy-handed approach typically held favor in the 1990s but has now come under scrutiny for what many see as its inability to address the root problems of societal drug abuse and addiction. Many people on both sides of the aisle favor treatment and therapy over punishment, and here Sessions may find himself remaining an outlier not only on the marijuana debate but on the greater debate of criminal justice in the United States itself.
With one of the world’s largest prison populations, many in the United States are beginning to look at alternatives to jail and the legalization of marijuana just conveniently happens to be occurring at the same time.