BY DIANE DIMOND
So, the federal government is going to crack down on pot, is it? Really? How exactly is that going to work? There are 29 states that have legalized medicinal marijuana, eight of which have also OK’d recreational use.
I’m thinking this cat is already out of the bag.
There are federal laws against marijuana cultivation, possession and distribution, but under the Obama administration, prosecutors were instructed to adopt a hands-off approach in states where medicinal pot had been legalized. Now Attorney General Jeff Sessions has created a cannabis conundrum by doing away with that approach. In a memo to federal prosecutors across the country, Sessions made his desire clear. No pot — nowhere, no how.
Sessions wants the decades-old federal law that lists marijuana in the same dangerous and potentially deadly category as crack cocaine, heroin and fentanyl upheld by his force of federal prosecutors.
Again, the cat, the bag — and how would that federal law even be enforced at this stage?
In elevating the matter from a mere states’ rights issue to a high-level national priority, Sessions may have outsmarted himself. His hard-line position has now galvanized influential members of Congress — both Democrats and Republicans — resulting in lots of chest-pounding pronouncements of defiance. It’s a matter of money — big money — and constituents’ wants.
First, the dollars and cents. The legal businesses that have sprung up around pot were valued at about $8 billion last year. That will most likely rise to $9 billion this year. It is a runaway financial juggernaut that is adding hundreds of millions of dollars in fees and tax revenue to participating states’ coffers. More states are poised to jump on the legalization train in the near future.
And about those constituents. The latest estimates are that 2.6 million Americans now rely on medical marijuana. They come from all walks of mainstream life. They are cancer and HIV patients, seniors, epileptic children, and voters battling chronic pain. Even the conservative American Legion backs access to cannabis for its members who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and painful war-related conditions.
So, what did Sessions see as the road ahead when he made his grand announcement to reinstate the prohibition on pot? Though hard-line law enforcement types may applaud the action, there seems to be little support anywhere else.
Members of Congress have called the action “heartless and cold” and one that “bulldozes over the will of the American people.” (Indeed, in the latest Pew Research Center poll, 6 in 10 Americans believe marijuana should be legalized.) One Republican lawmaker from Florida, Rep. Matt Gaetz, lectured the attorney general about priorities.
“He should focus his energies on prosecuting criminals, not patients,” Gaetz said.
Other lawmakers from states that benefit from relaxed marijuana laws are promising to retaliate. There are threats to stonewall all of Sessions’ future Justice Department nominees, to squeeze his department’s budget and to include in the pending 2018 omnibus spending bill an amendment guaranteeing there will be no federal rollback of states’ cannabis laws.
The unspoken reality, of course, is that Congress is the legislative branch of government, so at any time, any member could easily introduce a bill to repeal the federal marijuana law. So far, none has been brave enough to come forward with such legislation. Guess it’s politically safer to shout from the sidelines.
This political showdown should have come as no surprise. States have been passing laws easing up on the prohibition of marijuana since 1973, when Oregon and Texas took the first plunge to decriminalize weed. In 1978, New Mexico became the first state to recognize the medical value of marijuana and allowed its limited use to treat cancer patients. (The state fully legalized medicinal cannabis in 2007.) And all the while, official Washington stood on the sidelines (for the most part) and watched as state after state traveled down the path toward legal pot.
A predictable hue and cry from the public followed the attorney general’s recent marijuana announcement. Various newspaper editorials painted Sessions as a “lifelong anti-drug crusader” who ignores medical science and doesn’t realize how fighting the deadly opioid epidemic has already stretched his team of federal prosecutors to the limit. Patients’ rights groups, civil liberties advocates and those who work within the legal cannabis industry have come out swinging against Sessions’ proposal.
Sessions may want to reignite the old war on drugs with his conviction that marijuana should be subjected to the same legal penalties as harder drugs, but common sense reveals the limit to his power.
The sheer number of opponents standing at the ready to wage their own war makes clear that Sessions’ battle to once again criminalize marijuana is doomed.