Sessions leaves door open for marijuana crackdown, Congress should close it
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Will a Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsHarris to resign from Senate seat on Monday Rosenstein: Zero tolerance immigration policy 'never should have been proposed or implemented' Sessions, top DOJ officials knew 'zero tolerance' would separate families, watchdog finds MORE led Justice Department take action against the growing number of US states that have legalized the use and sale of marijuana? 

Based upon his statements yesterday to members of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, the answer is ‘maybe.’

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As a member of Congress, the Alabama senator has a long and consistent history of ardently speaking out against marijuana policy reform. He publicly criticized the Obama administration for taking a largely ‘hands off’ approach to the enactment of voter-initiated laws regulating the substance’s use, stating, “We need grown ups in charge in Washington to say marijuana is not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized.” 

He further proclaimed, “[G]ood people don’t smoke marijuana.”

But in reality, tens of millions of good Americans do consume cannabis. Today, 29 states authorize the plant’s therapeutic use by qualified patients and eight of these jurisdictions, encompassing some 20 percent of the US population, also regulate its use and sale to adults. 

The majority of Americans support these laws. According to recent national polls, over 80 percent of US citizens support the legalization of medicinal marijuana, while 60 percent support broader legalization for all adults.

Nonetheless, members of Congress have largely remained silent with regard to this growing divide between voters’ sentiments and federal law – which continues to inappropriately classify cannabis in the same category as heroin.

That is why the Obama administration in 2013 issued guidelines encouraging the Justice Department to limit its involvement in states that have elected to legalize and regulate the plant. However, when Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) was asked whether he believed the federal government should continue this approach, he responded equivocally, stating that whether to do so was primarily incumbent upon the availability of federal resources.

“Using good judgment on how to handle these cases will be a responsibility of mine. I know it won’t be an easy decision but I will try to do my duty in a fair and just way,” Sessions acknowledged.

Then he added: “One obvious concern is the United States Congress has made the possession in every state and distribution an illegal act. If that’s something that’s not desired any longer Congress should pass a law to change the rule. It is not the Attorney General’s job to decide what laws to enforce.”

On this latter point, the senator is indeed correct. Members of Congress enacted the modern-day federal prohibition of marijuana in 1970 and, ultimately, it is the responsibility of Congress to take action to amend or rescind it.

The ongoing enforcement of marijuana prohibition financially burdens taxpayers, encroaches upon civil liberties, engenders disrespect for the law, and disproportionately impacts young people and communities of color. It makes no sense from a public health perspective, a fiscal perspective, or a moral perspective to perpetuate the prosecution and stigmatization of those adults who choose to responsibly consume a substance that is safer than either alcohol or tobacco.

From a purely political perspective, it makes little sense for the federal government to take actions that so clearly contradictory to the will of the majority of the American people.

Rather than leaving this decision solely up to the discretion of the incoming attorney general, members of Congress should take this opportunity to move expeditiously to amend federal law in a manner that comports with public and scientific consensus, as well as with marijuana’s rapidly changing cultural and legal status.

Until that day happens, the incoming administration and its Justice Department ought to respect America’s long-established principles of federalism and heed the advice former Supreme Court Justice Brandeis, who famously opined, “[A] state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”

Armentano is the deputy director of NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) and an adviser for Freedom Leaf. He is the co-author of the book "Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink?" (Cheslea Green, 2013) and author of the book "The Citizen's Guide to State-By-State Marijuana Laws" (Whitman Press, 2015).


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