On the day he issued a two-page bid to revive the federal government’s failing war on drugs franchise, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions stepped up to a lectern in West Virginia to address a conference on America’s opioid crisis.
Sessions sees a nation keening with 52,000 overdose deaths and scolds us for our ‘complacency.’
“We’re on a bad trend right now,” Sessions told the audience at the University of Charleston on Thursday. “We’ve got too much complacency about drugs. Too much talking about ‘recreational drugs.’ That’s the same thing you used to hear in the 80s. That’s what the pro-drug crowd argued then. But we realized from reality—empirical fact, neighbors, friends, crime, that this was not a legitimate thing.”
It was an extraordinary moment. Sessions spoke to West Virginians living in the heart of heroin country, where 864 people were killed by opioid overdoses last year. The conference was all about the opioid crisis. And yet he chose to bang his shoe against…cannabis? (Nobody talks about heroin as a ‘recreational drug.’) This in a state where—only three weeks ago—legislators and the governor proudly legalized medical marijuana under West Virginia law.
After Sessions’ speech, federal prosecutors received fresh marching orders from the new boss. The Sessions sentencing memo, as it will surely be known, orders US attorneys and their subordinates to “charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense” in nearly all cases, “including mandatory minimum sentences.”
Those are the sentences that gave America the dubious honor of being the nation with the world’s highest incarceration rate, and did nothing to stanch illegal drug use or prevent the opioid death spiral so many communities are now experiencing. Sessions sees a nation keening with 52,000 overdose deaths every year and scolds us for our “complacency.” His answer? Bring back the days of D.A.R.E., “Just Say No,” and hard prison time for two joints.
This franchise reboot will fail.
- It will fail because the American people have learned from “reality—empirical fact” that medical cannabis is not a hippie’s delusion. “Neighbors, friends” have confided to other neighbors and friends that, Well, actually, medical marijuana worked for me when I was suffering from (insert here): cancer, intractable seizures, PTSD, chronic pain. Those neighbors and friends are conservative and liberal, old and young, rich and poor, religious and agnostic. They are responsible parents, smart entrepreneurs, hard workers, and morally righteous. They are us.
- It will fail because science and the federal government are increasingly acknowledging that cannabis offers a rational way out of the opioid crisis. Studies are showing that states with legal medical marijuana programs suffer fewer opioid addiction rates and overdose deaths than states upholding strict cannabis prohibition. We hear daily from patients who have weaned themselves from catatonic doses of prescribed opioids by using moderate, stable, and functional amounts of medical cannabis. Just last month the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the most hardline anti-cannabis agency outside the DEA, posted an acknowledgment that “data suggests that medical marijuana treatment may reduce the opioid dose prescribed for pain patients,” and that “medical marijuana legalization might be associated with decreased prescription opioid use and overdose deaths.” That’s on a website called drugabuse.gov.
- It will fail because Republican conservatives have turned against it. Medical marijuana and cannabis legalization are no longer liberal-Democrat issues. Data from last November’s election showed conservative voters in deep red districts in states like Florida, Arkansas, and North Dakota voting overwhelmingly in favor of medical marijuana. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a red-meat-loving, Trump-backing Orange County (California) conservative, has zero in common with Rep. Earl Blumenauer, a bow-tied, bicycle-riding Portland (Oregon) liberal—except cannabis. Their shared bond over legalization is so strong that the recent budget rider that protects medical marijuana patients from Jeff Sessions is named the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment, forever conjoining their names in history.
- It will fail because state and city officials, local police agencies, and local juries will not go along for the ride this time. State legislators in California, Washington, Colorado and Oregon have already taken steps to make it more difficult for state and local officials to cooperate with federal raids on local residents who abide by state laws and regulations. Cities like Los Angeles and Seattle are preparing to protect law-abiding business owners and their employees from federal intrusion on a number of fronts.
- It will fail because Sessions may not be in office 12 months from now. There are several ways this could happen. The Russia investigation that continues to bedevil the Trump administration may catch the AG in its ever-widening net. His role in this week’s firing of FBI Director James Comey may cause Sessions as yet unforeseen troubles. And then there’s the strange way in which Trump’s subordinates tend to serve abruptly short terms. See under: Corey Lewandowski, Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, Michael Flynn, and James Comey. Today Jeff Sessions enjoys a position in the President’s inner trust circle just outside the sphere of Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon. But that could change in a heartbeat. It could be something as small as an ill-considered remark that irks the President’s fragile pride. Or it may come in a moment where Sessions must choose between carrying out his oath to uphold the Constitution and his loyalty to President Trump. Ask James Comey what happens when a subordinate chooses conscience and country over boss. Today the Sessions sentencing memo has the power of Justice Department policy. But tomorrow is a different day.