Trump picks drug-warrior Jeff Sessions for attorney general

Emily Gray Brosious

Jeff Sessions tapped for attorney general(Photo credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Trump taps marijuana opponent to lead the justice department.

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In the latest blow to drug policy reformers and civil rights advocates, President-elect Donald Trump has selected fierce drug-war proponent Jeff Sessions to be the next U.S. attorney general.

Trump repeatedly affirmed his support for states’ rights to legalize marijuana along the campaign trail, giving marijuana reformers hope that his administration wouldn’t interfere with recent marijuana policy reform gains. But as the President-elect begins surrounding himself with people like Sessions that strongly oppose progressive drug policy reform, it’s raising serious concerns that years of legal and social progress may be undone.  

Sessions, a conservative Alabama Senator and former federal prosecutor, has spoken out strongly against marijuana legalization over the years, while supporting stringent mandatory minimum sentencing laws and tough penalties for drug crimes.

Speaking in an April 2016 Senate hearing on state marijuana legalization, 69-year-old Sessions said, “This drug is dangerous, it cannot be played with, it is not funny, it’s not something to laugh about, and [I’m] trying to send that message with clarity, that good people don’t smoke marijuana.”

Although the gateway drug theory of marijuana has been widely discredited and evidence now shows marijuana may even be an “exit drug” that helps people kick opiate addiction, it seems Sessions hasn’t gotten that memo.

“You have to have leadership from Washington,” he said. “You can’t have the President of the United States of America talking about marijuana like it is no different than taking a drink, saying I used marijuana when I was in high school and it is no different than smoking. It is different. And you are sending a message to young people that there is no danger in this process. It is false that marijuana use doesn’t lead people to more drug use.”

When Sessions was being considered for a federal judge position in 1986, a former deputy testified that he once said the Ku Klux Klan was “OK until I found out they smoked pot.” Sessions said he was just kidding, but the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected his nomination due to his racially charged comments. Ironically, Sessions is now a sitting member of the same committee.

Sessions has made many more statements opposing drug policy reform, civil rights reform and immigration reform, which are available here and here.

Overall, the picture isn’t a pretty one for marijuana legalization advocates who hoped November’s state ballot initiative victories might herald the end of federal marijuana prohibition.

As U.S. attorney general, Sessions would oversee the Drug Enforcement Administration, federal prosecutors and other federal law enforcement agencies, giving him tremendous power to interfere with, or altogether disable, state marijuana laws.

For the past eight years, the Department of Justice has generally followed Obama administration directives not to interfere with state marijuana laws. But under a Trump administration with Sessions at the helm of the justice department, things could be very different.

Sessions still needs a confirmation vote in the Senate to secure the role of attorney general, but given the Senate’s Republican majority, he’ll likely be approved.

Tom Angell, chairman of the advocacy group Marijuana Majority admits Sessions isn’t good news for the marijuana reform movement, but he remains optimistic that growing public support for legalization will win out.

“I’m still hopeful the new administration will realize that any crackdown against broadly popular laws in a growing number of states would create huge political problems they don’t need and will use lots of political capital they’d be better off spending on issues the new president cares a lot more about,” Angell said in an email statement to Extract.

“A clear majority of Americans support legalizing marijuana and super majorities across party lines believe that states should be able to implement their own cannabis laws without federal interference,” he said. “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.”

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