Ending days of heated speculation, President-elect Donald Trump named Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions as his nominee for U.S. Attorney General earlier today, sparking worries among legalization advocates and cannabis industry leaders.
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 to states like Colorado, Washington, and Oregon to carry out regulated adult-use legalization, as 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.
Sessions, who served as a U.S. attorney 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. “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,” he said at a Senate hearing earlier this year.
At that same April 5 hearing, Sessions stated that “good people don’t smoke marijuana”:
“It was the prevention movement that really was so positive, 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.”
Reason columnist Jacob Sullum pointed out the full faith Sessions retains in 1980s-style anti-drug campaigns: “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).
In early 2014, President Obama told a writer for The New Yorker that “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 Sen. 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.”
Early reaction from cannabis leaders was not positive.
“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.”
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.