Jeff Sessions in the wrong and out of step on weed

Camille Fine

In 2013, Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole signed a memorandum titled “Guidance Regarding Marijuana Enforcement.” That memo was a big deal, a rare nod to federalism by an administration not known for its federalism.

The Cole Memo formalized a Department of Justice policy that enforcement of federal marijuana laws against individuals and businesses acting in compliance with state laws would not be a priority. While that memo obviously did not carry the force of law and did nothing to “repeal” yet another version of federal Prohibition that hasn’t worked, it did have the effect of allowing a rapidly maturing cannabis industry to somewhat emerge from the shadows — and granted a little stress relief to state and local officials faced with administering medical and recreational marijuana programs that are, in fact, illegal.

It would be a stretch to suggest the Cole Memo was the result of a momentary lapse in the Obama administration’s general preference for top-down government. Respecting state primacy is not a significant part of the Obama legacy.

But that is not to diminish the importance of a commonsense approach that recognized both political and policy realities.

{mosads}After all, more than 100 million Americans (you know who you are) have at some point in their lives violated federal marijuana laws.


Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical cannabis to at least some extent — that means a majority of Americans, either via their legislatures or at the ballot box, have made an affirmative decision that seeking the potential medical benefits of marijuana ought not land one in jail.

Eight states and D.C. have legalized recreational marijuana — all under stringent regulatory constraints similar to alcohol. Just last week, California joined those ranks.

To varying degrees, all these states are collecting taxes and fees from marijuana commerce that are now accounting for hundreds of millions of dollars in needed revenues. The “legal” cannabis industry is now measured in billions of dollars and growing exponentially.

The list goes on, but let’s just say that we are way past the tipping point. The legal, regulated cannabis horse is not going back into the barn.

So what does our current attorney general, Jeff Sessions, do? Last week, he rescinded Mr. Cole’s memo, turning his U.S. Attorneys loose to get back into the business of imposing federal superiority over all those misguided states.

What is he thinking?

Even his boss, President Trump, has said he is OK with medical cannabis, and has given little indication over time that even recreational marijuana is something that particularly bothers him. Congress, that bastion of progressive thought, has, since 2014, essentially codified the Cole Memo in each of its continuing spending resolutions, forbidding DOJ from spending tax dollars to prosecute individuals acting in accord with state law.

It’s no secret that President Trump — not to mention a lot of other folks — has some issues with his attorney general. The rescission of the Cole Memo should be added to the list. It is inexplicable policy-wise and, as a political matter, insane for a Republican Party that desperately needs to connect with young people and millennials, much less the clear majority of all Americans, who have come to agree that simple marijuana use shouldn’t be a crime.

In 1999, when I became one of the highest ranking elected officials to call for the legalization of marijuana, only about 30 percent of respondents to an annual Gallup poll on the subject agreed with me. Today, that number is 64 percent and trending up. According to the Pew Research Center, 70 percent of millennials believe marijuana should be legal. 

In short, Jeff Sessions managed to come up with something no one was clamoring for, that flies directly in the face of the federalism Republicans love to love, and which is so out of step with a growing majority of Americans as to be laughable.

Attorney General Sessions will not succeed in his increasingly lonely crusade against pot. He just won’t. Even Republican office-holders in “legal” states are today compelled to defend voters and legislatures who have spoken on cannabis legalization. 

All he is accomplishing is to alienate, or at least bewilder, a rather large chunk of the electorate who are today collectively asking: “What???”

Johnson served as governor of New Mexico from 1995-2003. He was the 2016 Libertarian Party nominee for president.

Tags Attorney general Cole memo Department of Justice Donald Trump Jeff Sessions legal cannabis medical marijuana

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