In a new memo, Attorney General and demonic Keebler elf Jeff Sessions moved to lengthen drug sentences, rolling back a core element of the Obama administration’s criminal justice reform, which allowed prosecutors to avoid harsh mandatory minimum sentencing — five years to life in prison — for low-level drug offenses, like possession of marijuana. Basically, if you’re caught with a drug that makes everyone very calm and hungry, you don’t have to die behind bars with murderers!
According to a 2013 directive from former Attorney General Eric Holder, federal prosecutors should not specify the amount of drugs involved in non-violent cases, in order to set sentences lower than the mandatory minimums. Sessions’s new directive states that the Justice Department will return to the previous policy of filing the most serious charge available against the defendant.
“It is a core principle that prosecutors should charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense,” Sessions wrote, adding that any action to lessen the impact of mandatory minimums should come from Congress. “This policy affirms our responsibility to enforce the law, is moral and just, and produces consistency. This policy fully utilizes the tools Congress has given us,” he wrote.
This move isn’t surprising if you’re familiar with Sessions’s feelings about marijuana and the people who smoke it (“good people don’t”). Earlier this year, he called weed a “life-wrecking dependency” that’s “only slightly less awful” than heroin. This, like much of what comes out of the current administration, is inaccurate. Weed is nowhere near as dangerous and addictive as heroin. In 2015, there were more deaths from heroin than gun homicides. There have been exactly zero deaths from marijuana.
But it’s not about the facts for Sessions, it’s about how he feels about drugs. These kinds of falsehoods are used by men like Sessions to justify imprisoning high numbers of people they don’t like. Richard Nixon used a similar strategy when he said he was going to “hit the marijuana thing right square in the puss.” (This is better than a president actually hitting women in the puss, but not by much.) One of Nixon’s top advisors would later admit that the “War on Drugs” was a deliberate attack on black people and anti-war demonstrators.
Not only was Nixon trying to pacify the critics of the Vietnam War and oppress black communities in order to get the Southern vote, he was blatantly acting against what several dozens of studies and tests had already proven: weed is not evil.
While president, Nixon appointed Pennsylvania Governor Raymond P. Shafer to lead a national commission report on the effects of marijuana and recommend drug policies to the administration. Shafer’s findings weren’t as controversial as Nixon had hoped. After more than 50 studies and field surveys, the commission concluded that marijuana’s “relative potential for harm to the vast majority of individual users and its actual impact on society does not justify a social policy designed to seek out and firmly punish those who use it.”
They found “no significant physical, biochemical, or mental abnormalities” that could be attributed to marijuana use, and no proof of a relationship between marijuana and heroin use. In addition, they found that weed doesn’t cause violent or aggressive behavior, and in fact inhibits it, therefore affirming that marijuana use doesn’t pose a threat to public safety.
The commission saw criminalization of marijuana possession as “socially self-defeating.” Considering the “range of social concerns in contemporary America,” they wrote, “[marijuana] does not, in our considered judgment, rank very high. We would deemphasize [marijuana] as a problem.”
And yet, Nixon still introduced mandatory sentencing and no-knock warrants, and dramatically increased the size and presence of federal drug control agencies. Every president since him, not wanting to look “weak,” has continued this unnecessary, unjustified attack on an essentially harmless drug that poses no real threat to our society. Since the Nixon administration, tens of millions of people have been arrested for marijuana use. Presently, marijuana arrests account for more than half of all drug arrests in the United States, and 88 percent of those arrests are simply for possession of the drug, according to the ACLU.
Decades after the commission’s studies and the range of social concerns in contemporary America have grown significantly, and weed use continues to rank very low on the list of things the U.S. should put time, money, and effort toward. But I guess no one’s told Sessions this. In the same speech where he equated marijuana to heroin, he also said, “In the ’80s and ’90s, we saw how campaigns stressing prevention brought down drug use and addiction. We can do this again.”
Only we didn’t see those campaigns bring down drug use. Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign was unsuccessful at stopping teens from using drugs. It also resulted in a disproportionately high number of minorities in prison, by implementing harsher sentences for crack than for cocaine, and dramatically increased the amount of non-violent offenders behind bars. Sessions’s latest directive will likely result in the same thing.
It’s scary when you think about how one man’s out-dated opinion can become the law of the land despite flying in the face of factual evidence. Like Nixon, Sessions has a long history of documented racism. He’s called the NAACP an “un-American organization,” and said he thought the Ku Klux Klan were “OK” until he “learned they smoked pot.” Basically, the only thing Sessions seems to dislike more than black people is pot.
In February, Sessions reversed the government’s stance on private prisons, which was meant to limit and eventually phase out their use due to declining inmate numbers and poor security and safety conditions. Private prisons make billions every year off non-violent drug offenders, depending directly on harsh sentencing practices.
Keeping marijuana illegal and enforcing strict punishments is harming the United States for many reasons. Prison populations have ballooned at such a rate that a lot of state governments can’t afford it. We’re continuing to fuel a prison industrial complex that inordinately harms people of color and poorer communities in the U.S., and we’re keeping billions of dollars out of the economy. That money could be put toward successful drug diversion programs and not more prisons or ineffective anti-drug campaigns.
By focusing too much on weed, we’re neglecting a drug problem we can all agree on: the rise of opioid abuse, including prescription painkiller dependency. And while Sessions has said the opioid problem won’t be solved solely by putting people in jail, he said it’s a “critical part of it,” adding that, “We’re on a bad trend right now. We’ve got too much complacency about drugs. Too much talk about recreational drugs.”
No one is suggesting legalizing recreational heroin. We’re talking about recreational marijuana. That way, when a person goes to buy weed, they’re not buying it from a drug dealer who makes their living selling illegal drugs, and could possibly have some heroin for them to try. Medical marijuana could also be an excellent supplement for prescription painkillers that are widely overprescribed by doctors.
Sessions’s new policy allows for exceptions for “good judgement,” approved by supervisors in U.S. attorney’s offices or at Justice Department headquarters, but doesn’t state what exactly that means. While he’s suggested before that there wouldn’t be a crackdown on legal weed, this is a man who was caught lying under oath, so his words should be taken with a grain of salt and a shot of tequila because who wants to be sober during this waking nightmare?