Dont panic, legalization advocates say: Jeff Sessions anti-marijuana policy will have little practical impact and may even hasten the formal end of prohibition
Now that the dust has settled around attorney general Jeff Sessions promise of harsher federal marijuana enforcement, advocates of legalization have largely exchanged their initial disappointment over the move for one of long-term optimism.
I think there was a knee-jerk reaction of something approaching panic, but once everyone calmed down, theyve come to realize that practically this is going to have little impact, said Patrick Moen, a former Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agent who now works as council to an investment firm in the nascent legal marijuana industry.
Some, like Moen, even believe the decision could be the best thing for the growing marijuana movement, hastening the formal end of weed prohibition in the US.
There will probably a short term chilling effect, but this could ultimately be the best thing thats ever happened to accelerate the pace of change, Moen said.
The markets have reflected this somewhat counterintuitive sentiment. The United States Marijuana Index, which tracks 15 leading publicly traded legal marijuana-related companies, initially dropped 21% on the heels of the Department of Justice (DoJ) announcement, but it turned out to be a blip. By early this week the index had rebounded to within a few points of its one-year high.
Sessions announcement formally rescinded guidance, known as the Cole Memo, issued by the Obama-era DoJ that essentially told federal prosecutors to respect state laws with regards to marijuana. Importantly, though, Sessions decision did not direct or incentivize US attorneys to pursue marijuana cases, it just allowed them to if they so choose.
The Cole Memo guidance was eminently reasonable and was a common sense good policy, Moen said. I think that despite the fact that its been formally rescinded, federal prosecutors will effectively continue to abide by it.
Attorney general to end lenient enforcement of federal marijuana laws, days after new legalization measure took effect in California
The US attorney general, Jeff Sessions, is rescinding an Obama-era policy that paved the way for legalized marijuana to flourish in states across the country, creating new confusion about enforcement and use just three days after a new legalization law went into effect in California.
Instead of the previous policy of lenient federal enforcement begun under former attorney general Eric Holder in 2013, Sessions new stance will instead let federal prosecutors where marijuana is legal decide how aggressively to enforce longstanding federal law prohibiting it. Guidance issued on Thursday depicted the change as a return to the rule of law.
It is the mission of the Department of Justice to enforce the laws of the United States, and the previous issuance of guidance undermines the rule of law and the ability of our local, state, tribal, and federal law enforcement partners to carry out this mission, Sessions said in a statement.
Sessions plan drew immediate strong objection from the Republican senator Cory Gardner of Colorado, one of eight states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use.
Gardner said in a tweet that the justice department has trampled on the will of the voters in Colorado and other states. He said the action would contradict what Sessions had told him before the attorney general was confirmed and that he was prepared to take all steps necessary to fight the step including holding up the confirmation of justice department nominees.
The move by Trumps attorney general is sure to add to confusion about whether its OK to grow, buy or use marijuana in states where the drug is legal. It comes just after shops opened in California, launching what is expected to become the worlds largest market for legal recreational marijuana.
This instability will only push consumer dollars away from these state-sanctioned businesses and back into the hands of criminal elements. With nearly two-thirds of Americans, including an outright majority of Republicans, Democrats and Independents supporting marijuana legalization, this is not just bad policy, but awful politics and the Trump administration should brace itself for the public backlash it will no doubt generate, said Erik Altieri, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
Altieri also noted that the announcement throws the jobs of more than 150,000 Americans employed in the budding legal marijuana industry into limbo.
For politicians who purport to believe in small government and states rights, this is a wildly incongruous move, said Jesselyn McCurdy, deputy director at the American Civil Liberties Union.
While Sessions has been mostly been carrying out a justice department agenda that follows Trumps top priorities on such issues as immigration and opioids, the changes to marijuana policy reflect his own long-held concerns. Trumps personal views on marijuana remain largely unknown.
A adviser on marijuana policy to Attorney General Jeff Sessions wants to see doctors make drug testing a routine part of primary-care medicine and force some users into treatment against their will, he told The Daily Beast.
DuPont, 81, is one of the most influential drug warriors of the past century. He began his career as a liberal on drug control in the 1970s, calling then for the decriminalization of marijuana possession and launching the first U.S. methadone treatment program for heroin in Washington, D.C. in 1971. By the 1980s, he shifted to the right, popularizing the claim marijuana was a gateway drug.
A national model bill he helped write in 2010 called on law enforcement to test anyone stopped for suspicion of driving under the influence for all controlled substances, and arresting them if any trace at all shows up in their systemregardless of the amount. While the bill includes an exemption for drivers who consumed a drug pursuant to a prescription, it would not apply to medicinal-marijuana users because doctors are not currently allowed to prescribe pot, only offer a recommendation for its use.
The bills language makes clear that these people will still face sanction even if they live in a state in which medical marijuana is legal.
[The] fact that any person charged with violating this subsection is or was legally entitled to consume alcohol or to use a controlled substance, medication, drug, or other impairing substance, shall not constitute a defense against any charge, it reads.
But even thats not the worst of it.
The bill includes a section prohibiting the Internal Possession of Chemical or Controlled Substances.
Any person who provides a bodily fluid sample containing any amount of a chemical or controlled substance… commits an offense punishable in the same manner as if the person otherwise possessed that substance, it reads, adding in a footnote: This provision is not a DUI specific law. Rather, it applies to any person who tests positive for chemical or controlled substances.
Asked to comment on whether Sessions was aware of DuPonts proposal to penalize drug users who may not even be under the influence behind the wheel, and if he supports it, a Justice Department spokesperson chose to focus on the dangers of driving while intoxicated.
"The Controlled Substances Act was enacted by Congress to comprehensively restrict and regulate numerous drugs, including marijuana, said DOJ spokeswoman Lauren Ehrsam, in a statement provided to The Daily Beast. Further, the attorney general agrees with the Centers for Disease Control that driving while impaired by marijuana is dangerous as it negatively affects a number of skills required for safe driving.
Futile for Addicts to Help Themselves
On closer inspection, DuPonts proposal is part of a plan to expand the use of drug-testing technology to root out users, and the threat of prosecution to compel them into treatment, where they will be tested even more.
Early last year, The Daily Beast conducted a lengthy interview with DuPont as he was shopping around a radical proposal called the New Paradigm for Long-Term Recoveryto address Americas festering overdose crisis. It would include a massive expansion of drug testing in addiction medicine.
Drug testing is the technology of addiction medicine, but its underutilized, he said. We want [drug screens] to be routine in all medicine. The health-care sector in general should approach addiction in the same way as diabetes, and that includes monitoring. Doctors already check for things like cholesterol and blood sugar. Why not test for illicit drugs?
Calling his platform the opposite of harm reduction, DuPont said the goal of his plan is to promote long-term results… and greater accountability in the treatment sector.
Among other things, he proposed giving doctors the authority to compel suspected substance abusers into treatment against their will. Once in treatment, patients could face as much as five years of monitoring, including random drug tests.
People dont understand that referral to treatment is futile for an addict on their own, DuPont told The Daily Beast. Right now, the public really thinks that if we provide treatment the addicts will come and get well… thats not true. So lets use the leverage of the criminal-justice system, thats what the programs in the New Paradigm want to do.
Turning a Profit Off Drug Testing
DuPont presents his proposal as evidence-based, but its hard to separate his strong promotion of drug testing from his close personal and financial connections to the drug testing industry.
In the 1970s he was the nations drug czar under Nixon and Ford, and was the first Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, until his increasingly radical views (he called for drug testing all parolees and sending them back to prison if they failed) forced his resignation in 1978.
After leaving federal service, DuPont joined the former head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Pete Bensinger, to cash in on urine testing. The firm they founded, Bensinger, DuPont & Associates, provided drug testing services to some of Americas largest corporations.
Doctors already check for things like cholesterol and blood sugar, why not test for illicit drugs.
Dr. Robert DuPont
In 1991, while running the firm, DuPont introduced the idea of mandatory drug testing for welfare recipients in a policy document published by the Heritage Foundation. DuPont recommended not only testing the adults on public assistance but also their children.
Later that decade, DuPont co-authored research with the founder of a firm called Psychemedics promoting the companys new hair testing technology.
In 2000, while he was a shareholder and a paid consultant for the company DuPont testified before a Food & Drug Administration panel on drug testing where he advocated for expanding hair testing into federal workplaces. Dismissing the appearance of a conflict of interest DuPont told the panel: I don't think of myself as an employee or an advocate particularly for Psychemedics, but for drug testing generally.
The FDA approved the companys first hair follicle test two years later, and today Psychemedics is a multi-million dollar a year business that's in the process of a profitable expansion into South America.
This is a running theme for DuPont. For instance, Stephen Talpins, an attorney who helped DuPont author his model drugged driving bill, formerly was a vice president at Alcohol Monitoring Systems, Inc., which makes the SCRAM alcohol and location monitoring system used by many courts.
Now DuPont is listed as a scientific adviser on the website of global drug-testing startup called CAM International Ventures. That company was founded in 2013 by David Martin, former president of the Drug & Alcohol Testing Industry Association, and includes among its staff other prominent members of the drug testing industry.
Still, DuPont rejects the idea that there is any financial motivation behind his fixation drug testing.
I find it bizarre to think that my interests after all these years were financial, he told The Daily Beast. I just think, there is a financial incentive in drug testing, but the reason Im interested in drug testing is that there is an interest from the disease standpoint.
With a dozen more states expected to consider legal marijuana measures in 2018, and even Republican lawmakers like Trey Gowdy questioning the federal governments hard stance on the drug, its unlikely even a die hard anti-pot crusader like DuPont can turn back the tide, but that doesnt mean he cant make a few more bucks trying.
The US attorney general is trying to undo the progress made in liberalizing marijuana consumption in the US. This will only lead to more people in jail
Once upon a time, the 1936 film Reefer Madness attempted to spread sensationalistic messages about marijuana to youths across the land. Just one toke, the film warned, and you could be setting off down the primrose path to murder, hallucinations, rape, suicide, and yes, the titular madness. Yikes!
Luckily for fans of the plant, we now know the worst effects of marijuana are smokers cough, laziness and a predilection for salty junk food. Furthermore, studies have shown it can be used to treat a vast array of health problems, from glaucoma to the nausea caused by chemotherapy.
The total number of fatal marijuana overdoses per year remains steady at zero. Why, its almost like pot is no big deal, and we should be allowed to have it if we want.
This knowledge, plus widespread social acceptance a recent Gallup poll found that one in eight US adults admits to smoking the stuff, and more than half have tried it have led to a gradual liberalization of marijuana laws on the state level, to the point where 29 states plus Washington DC have legalized medical marijuana.
Eight states have gone a step further and legalized it for recreational use, allowing people over the age of 21 to enjoy it responsibly. In 2016 alone, the citizens of eight states voted to relax their laws on recreational and/or medical marijuana, one of few progressive victories in an otherwise depressing election. (Perhaps because its one of a few issues that unites progressives and libertarian-leaning conservatives.) It would seem a critical mass of Americans is coming to accept the popular plant as the relatively harmless, potentially helpful substance it is.
But all that progress may soon come to a halt. As threatened back in February, Donald Trumps Department of Justice has plans to aggressively go after states that have legalized both recreational and medical marijuana the latter despite Sean Spicers promise that Trump sees a big difference between the two.
After making baseless statements that marijuana is only slightly less awful than heroin and that good people dont smoke marijuana, the attorney general, Jeff Sessions who once joked that he thought the violent white supremacists of the KKK were okay until I found out they smoked pot has established a task force to investigate the connection between marijuana and violent crime.
He might learn that legalizing marijuana has actually been shown to reduce violent crime in some instances and leave it unaffected in others. But, in case anyone thought he was waiting for the task forces findings to come in before acting, in May he wrote a letter to congressional leaders asking them to roll back protections put in place by the previous Congress. These use the power of the purse to keep the Department of Justice from prosecuting medical marijuana in states that have voted to legalize it.
In said letter, he referred to a historic drug epidemic, willfully conflating marijuana use with the crisis of opiate addiction plaguing our country. (Sessions either doesnt know or doesnt care that opiate deaths have actually decreased in states that have legalized medical marijuana, partly because it can serve as a gentler alternative to addictive prescription painkillers.)
He scapegoats marijuana for violent crime once more. He even claims marijuana is linked to an increased risk of psychiatric disorders such as psychosis, which sounds a lot like reefer madness to me. As with Trumps Muslim ban, Sessions notes this issue is too important to respect the rights of states to make their own laws. In Sessions bigoted eyes, states rights are only important when it comes to the passage of bills designed to discriminate against transgender people who wish to use the bathroom.
This approach is a departure from that of the Obama administration, whose relationship with the states on marijuana was more mixed. While Barack Obama raided growers in states that had legalized weed from time to time, the Department of Justice stated in a 2013 memo that it would not challenge state marijuana laws, provided the drug was adequately regulated. Obama also took some small steps to reform our criminal justice system, particularly where non-violent drug crimes were concerned.
While the fallout from legal marijuana is far from proven, the fallout from the ineffective war on drugs can be measured in lives ruined, particularly the lives of people of color. By 2001, there were 2 million people in our countrys prisons, and nearly one in three black men ages 20-29 was caught up in the deeply flawed criminal justice system.
Racial profiling, uneven enforcement, disparities in sentencing, and unequal access to lawyers have all helped ensure the majority of people in jail for drug offenses are black and Latino, despite the fact that black and white Americans use drugs at similar rates.
In rolling back states attempts at more sensible drug policy, Sessions seeks to bring us back to the days when misinformation and hysteria beat out science and reason, and the government used the war on drugs as an excuse to go after anti-war hippies and African-Americans, as a former Nixon official was once quoted admitting.
Our only hope is that the rollout of this policy is as botched as everything else the Trump administration has tried to do. Which, judging from recent history, is entirely possible.