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The Haymaker: Sending Sessions Back to the Senate Could Boost Legalization

‘The Haymaker’ is Leafly Deputy Editor Bruce Barcott’s weekly column on cannabis politics and culture.

The hot-and-cold bromance between President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions marks its one-year anniversary this week—the President nommed Jefferson Beauregard for the job exactly one year ago this Friday—but the odds of it surviving another month are starting to look slim indeed.

Roy Moore becomes more toxic by the hour. Giving Sessions his old Senate seat back could solve a lot of problems for Republicans.

Earlier today, the New York Times’ Sheryl Gay Stolberg floated a potential exit strategy that looks more viable than anything we’ve seen to date. It’s essentially a baseball trade: Sessions for Roy Moore and an interim attorney general to be named later.

Moore, of course, is the Alabama Republican candidate for US Senate who becomes more politically toxic by the hour. The latest polls have him actually behind a Democrat in a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate in nearly three decades.

After initially waffling, Senate Republicans and party elders are now pitching themselves off the burning Moore bandwagon, calling on the controversial judge to step down before more damage is done. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell moved from the “if true” stance to a full-on condemnation of Moore: “I believe the women, yes,” McConnell said. In the White House and on Capitol Hill, the talk among Republican leaders has moved from saving Moore’s candidacy to saving the seat.

Quoting Stolberg:

One idea now being discussed under this scenario, brought up by two different White House officials who spoke on condition of anonymity, would be for Gov. Kay Ivey of Alabama to immediately appoint Attorney General Jeff Sessions to what had been his seat when it becomes vacant again. Mr. Sessions remains highly popular among Alabama Republicans, but his relationship with President Trump has waned since he recused himself from the investigation of the role that Russia played in last year’s campaign.

Does that even work within Alabama’s rules of succession? Who knows. Everybody’s just spitballing at this point. But it’s worth nothing that so, so, so many problems could be solved with this move.

  • Trump finally jettisons Sessions, who’s been in The Donald’s doghouse for months, due to his refusal to halt, delay, or otherwise interfere with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.
  • For Sessions, the move allows him to get out from under his boss’s torment while saving face and coming out as the good guy. He takes one for the party and remains politically relevant and employed.
  • For Republicans, it solves the ever-deepening problem of Roy Moore, removing an embarrassing seat-loser and replacing him with Sessions, whose statewide popularity would assumedly carry him to an easy write-in victory against Democrat Doug Jones.
  • For Roy Moore…well, Roy Moore has issues that won’t be solved by this move. But that’s on him.

U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore is being pressured by Republican leaders to abandon the race after five Alabama women said Moore made inappropriate sexual or romantic advances when they were teenagers. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, File)

And what would such a move mean for cannabis legalization? I think it would effectively carry legalization across the finish line. By the time a post-Sessions Justice Department regains its bearings under a new leader, California will have opened its recreational cannabis system. The world’s single largest legal cannabis market will be a fait accompli.

Sessions has had nearly a year to knock legalization off its rails. And he's done nothing.

Look at it this way. Jeff Sessions was nominated about two weeks after California voted to legalize adult-use cannabis. He and President Trump have had nearly a full year to knock that process off the rails—something Sessions has made clear is his fondest desire. It’s a rare month that passes without Sessions making some public comment about the ridiculous, outlandish nature of marijuana laws in the 29 medical and eight adult-use states. And yet he has done nothing—not one thing—about it. As his fellow Alabamians might put it, ol’ JB is all bark and no bite.

Who Follows Sessions?

Probably Rod Rosenstein, the current deputy attorney general. He’d serve as the interim AG, possibly for the remainder of Trump’s term. It’s possible that Trump could name someone like Chris Christie to the job, but that would require Senate confirmation, and Senate Democrats might insist upon the new AG’s recusal from the Russia investigation. That’s the card up Rosenstein’s sleeve, in Trump’s eyes: Unlike Sessions, he hasn’t recused himself from Mueller’s investigation.

Rod Rosenstein could be more of a Dick Cheney-style operator: pulling levers behind the scenes, getting stuff done.

The risk for cannabis legalization is that Rosenstein could prove to be all bite and no bark. Sessions likes to holler but he doesn’t seem to be all that great at getting things done when it comes to cannabis.

Rosenstein, by contrast, could be an operator more in the Dick Cheney mode—moving gears and pulling levers ten hours a day, instead of spending his time yakking with the likes of Hugh Hewitt. We don’t know exactly where Rosenstein stands on state-legal cannabis. It’s a fair bet that he’s less exercised by the issue than Sessions, but he may also choose to use cannabis to make a statement about the supremacy of federal law over state legalization.

Time is on Our Side

Whatever the outcome, it’s a game of musical chairs that could further delay any federal action against state-legal cannabis.

And in some ways that’s the best we can hope for at this point. Because with every passing day, the state of California’s legal cannabis infrastructure grows and gains strength. Up north, Canada’s federal government and its provinces work diligently to build a well-regulated legal cannabis industry.

By this time next year, we may not be celebrating the anniversary of the Trump-Sessions relationship. But we will be enjoying the benefits of legal cannabis in two of the world’s largest markets, and that progress will be nearly impossible to reverse.

Bruce Barcott's Bio Image
Bruce Barcott

Leafly Senior Editor Bruce Barcott oversees news, investigations, and feature projects. He is a Guggenheim Fellow and author of Weed the People: The Future of Legal Marijuana in America.

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