With President-elect Donald Trump’s selection of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) for US attorney general, Americans are finally getting a clearer picture of what the federal government’s approach to cannabis might look like under his administration. Ending days of heated speculation, Trump on Tuesday morning officially nominated Sessions for the role, sparking worries among legalization advocates and cannabis industry leaders.
Sessions, who served as a US attorney in Alabama during the Reagan administration, was a big fan of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign, and has lamented the spread of legalization to states around the nation. Ahead of this year’s election, as nine states prepared to vote on cannabis legalization measures, he said at a Senate hearing that “I can’t tell you how concerning it is for me, emotionally and personally, to see the possibility that we will reverse the progress that we’ve made.”
At that same April 5 hearing, Sessions opined that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.”
“It was the prevention movement that really was so positive,” he said, “and it led to this decline. The creating of knowledge that this drug is dangerous, it cannot be played with, it is not funny, it’s not something to laugh about, and trying to send that message with clarity, that good people don’t smoke marijuana.”
“Jeff Sessions is a drug war dinosaur, which is the last thing the nation needs now.”
Ethan Nadelmann, executive director, Drug Policy Alliance
As the nation’s top law enforcement official, the attorney general has a great deal of power over the handling of federal cannabis laws. Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, who have held the position during the Obama administration, crafted and then upheld the Cole memo. That document established a policy of permitting states like Colorado, Washington, and Oregon to carry out regulated adult-use legalization so long as they stayed within certain parameters. The Cole memo is just that, though—a memo establishing policy. It is not a law, and it could be reversed by the next attorney general as early as January.
Washington insiders see the appointment of Sessions as an indication of Trump’s intention to tighten immigration policies and deport people who entered the country illegally, but many in the cannabis community also fear he could also pose an existential threat to state-legal cannabis programs, both medical and adult-use.
“Jeff Sessions is a drug war dinosaur, which is the last thing the nation needs now.” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “Those who counted on Donald Trump’s reassurance that marijuana reforms ‘should be a state issue’ will be sorely disappointed. And not just Democrats but the many Republicans as well who favor rolling back the war on drugs had better resist this nomination.”
Current AG Loretta Lynch, while not a legalization proponent, made waves in September by acknowledging, finally, that cannabis is not a gateway drug. Sessions, on the other hand, retains full faith in 1980s-style anti-drug campaigns, Reason editor Jacob Sullum noted.
“This is not the first time that Sessions, who served as a U.S. attorney during the Reagan administration, has pined for the days of Just Say No,” Sullum wrote. “But crediting Nancy Reagan for a decline in drug use that began before she latched onto her pet cause is scientifically problematic, and so are the messages Sessions wants the youth of America to hear—especially the idea that ‘good people don’t smoke marijuana,’ which condemns at least two-fifths of the population (and probably more like half, allowing for underreporting by survey respondents).”
Last week’s elections made clear a number of things about the nation. Among them, it showed that cannabis legalization—especially around medical marijuana—is no longer a partisan issue. In regions around the country, a strong turnout by Trump voters actually helped push legalization measures past the finish line. If Sessions uses the DOJ as a hammer to crush state cannabis programs, he’ll be at odds with one of the few mandates to come out of the Nov. 8 election—as well as the cannabis-friendly conservative voters who helped put Trump in office.
Some of Republican elected officials have already expressed opposition to Sessions’ stance on cannabis. Alabama state Rep. Allen Peake, a vocal proponent of medical cannabis in that state, told Leafly he was “surprised” by the nomination, which he said “gives me great concern because of his apparent negative stance toward medical marijuana.”
“Hopefully that issue will be brought up during the nominating process,” Peake continued, “and we can hold President Trump to his word that he is in support of medical marijuana.”
Tom Davis, a Republican state senator in South Carolina, took to Twitter to speak out against Sessions’ stance on medical marijuana:
“A huge majority of voters share Trump’s support for legal access to medical marijuana, and a steadily growing majority believes marijuana should be legal for adults,” the Marijuana Policy Project’s Mason Tvert told Leafly. “We would expect appointees who serve at the pleasure of the president to stick to the president’s position on this subject. It would certainly be controversial if Sen. Sessions completely defied the president who appointed him.”
A full 70% of GOP voters told pollsters state laws should be respected, higher than either Democrats (55%) or independents (56%).
Tom Angell, founder of Marijuana Majority, noted that legal cannabis has stronger backing than most elected officials. “The truth is, marijuana reform is much more popular with voters than most politicians are, and officials in the new administration would do well to take a careful look at the polling data on this issue before deciding what to do,” he said. “During the campaign the president-elect clearly pledged to respect state marijuana laws, and he should keep his word—both because it’s the right thing to do and because a reversal would be a huge political misstep.”
While Angell acknowledged Trump’s choice “certainly isn’t good news for marijuana reform,” he said he’s hopeful Trump will recognize that going after cannabis will be a waste of political capital.
In April of this year, a CBS News poll asked Americans whether the federal government should respect state cannabis laws. Overall, 59 percent said yes—but no group was more emphatic than Republicans in their support. A full 70 percent of GOP voters said state laws should be respected, higher than either Democrats (55 percent) or independents (56 percent).
Even within the White House, attitudes toward cannabis have been steadily changing. President Bill Clinton famously told reporters that while he’d smoked a joint before, he “didn’t inhale.” Barack Obama upped the ante as he prepared to run for president, telling journalists in 2006 that he did inhale: “That was the point.” In early 2014, President Obama told a New Yorker writer, “I smoked pot as a kid,” and as an adult “I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol.”
That elicited these comments from Sessions during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing:
“I have to tell you, I’m heartbroken to see what the president said just a few days ago. It’s stunning to me. I find it beyond comprehension. … This is just difficult for me to conceive how the president of the United States could make such a statement as that. … Did the president conduct any medical or scientific survey before he waltzed into the New Yorker and opined contrary to the positions of attorneys general and presidents universally prior to that?”
Sessions followed with this observation: “Lady Gaga says she’s addicted to it and it is not harmless.”
Sessions will have to be confirmed by a majority of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and the full Senate, after Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20. The Alabama senator currently sits as a member of the Judiciary Committee.