WASHINGTON ― Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Monday restated his opposition to marijuana use and offered an ominous warning about state-level marijuana legalization efforts, suggesting that such policies would open states to “violence,” as well as potential repercussions from the federal government.
“I don’t think America is going to be a better place when people of all ages, and particularly young people, are smoking pot,” Sessions said to reporters Monday at the Department of Justice. “I believe it’s an unhealthy practice, and current levels of THC in marijuana are very high compared to what they were a few years ago, and we’re seeing real violence around that.”
Sessions said he had a meeting on Monday with the attorney general of Nebraska, who is very concerned about marijuana flowing in from Colorado, which legalized weed in 2012. “Experts are telling me there’s more violence around marijuana than one would think and there’s big money involved,” he said.
Nebraska has been pushing back against its neighbor state’s marijuana laws for years. In 2014, Nebraska, along with Oklahoma, filed a federal lawsuit against Colorado in an attempt to invalidate its nascent laws allowing the sale of recreational marijuana, which the states claimed was increasing trafficking of the drug into their states. The Supreme Court dismissed the suit last year.
“You can’t sue somebody for drug debt; the only way to get your money is through strong-arm tactics, and violence tends to follow that,” Sessions said.
“States, they can pass the laws they choose,” he added. “I would just say it does remain a violation of federal law to distribute marijuana throughout any place in the United States, whether a state legalizes it or not.”
His comments appear to line up with White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s comments last week that opened the door for a Trump administration crackdown on recreational marijuana.
Spicer raised concerns among advocates for marijuana policy reform when he said states that have legalized recreational marijuana will see “greater enforcement” of federal laws surrounding the plant. Spicer explained that President Donald Trump sees the legalization of medical and recreational marijuana as two separate issues, and while the president understands the importance of the drug’s availability for medical purposes, Spicer said recreational use of the drug is “something the Department of Justice will be looking into.”
Marijuana remains illegal under the federal Controlled Substances Act, despite states’ efforts to scale back on criminalizing the plant over the past few years. Legal recreational marijuana has been approved in eight states and Washington, D.C., which continues to ban sales, unlike the state programs. A total of 28 states have legalized marijuana for medical purposes.
Former President Barack Obama’s Justice Department allowed states to forge their own way on marijuana policy with guidance urging federal prosecutors to refrain from targeting state-legal marijuana operations. But this guidance is not law and can be reversed by the Trump administration. Sessions said they were “looking” at the memos that set out enforcement priorities, which he said had some points of value.
Trump’s selection of Sessions to head the DOJ alarmed drug policy reformers who view the former Alabama senator as a “drug war dinosaur.” That’s because Sessions has long held retrograde views on marijuana and the disastrous war on drugs. During a Senate hearing last year, Sessions spoke out against weed and urged the federal government to send the message to the public that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.” He went on to criticize Obama for not speaking out more forcefully against the drug, saying that “we need grown-ups in Washington to say marijuana is not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized.” In separate comments last year, Sessions also called the legalization of marijuana “a mistake.”
And while Sessions didn’t appear to suggest there would be radical changes to federal enforcement of marijuana laws during his confirmation hearings last month, he only offered vague answers about how he might approach the drug and left the door open for increased federal interference with states.
Drug policy reformers have raised concerns that Sessions could use the FBI to crack down on marijuana operations nationwide, or direct the Drug Enforcement Administration to enforce federal prohibition outside of the jurisdiction of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. The court ruled in August that a federal rider blocks federal officials from prosecuting state-legal marijuana operators and patients. But that rider must be re-approved annually, and if it’s allowed to expire, Sessions could then order the DEA to enforce federal law nationally. He could also sue the various state governments that have set up regulatory schemes.
Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit substance in the United States, and the trend of states bucking prohibition in favor of legal regulation of the plant reflects a broad cultural shift toward greater acceptance of marijuana. National support for the legalization of the drug has risen dramatically in recent years, recently reaching historic highs in multiple polls. And states like Colorado, the first to establish a regulated adult-use marijuana marketplace, have seen successes that have debunked some lawmakers’ and law enforcers’ predictions that such policies would result in disaster.
A survey from Quinnipiac University released last week found a strong majority of American voters ― 71 percent ― want the federal government to respect state marijuana laws. In that survey, majorities of Republicans, Democrats, independents and every age group polled agreed the feds should not enforce prohibitionist laws on states that have legalized marijuana.
Marijuana policy reform advocates said Sessions’ comments actually show the need for further reform.
“By talking about marijuana and violence, the attorney general is inadvertently articulating the strongest argument that exists for legalization, which is that it allows regulated markets in a way that prohibition does not,” said Tom Angell, chairman of drug policy reform group Marijuana Majority. “The only connection between marijuana and violence is the one that exists when illegal sellers battle it out for profits in the black market.”