Three days after California finally began recreational marijuana sales, bringing its $13.5 billion black market industry into the light, Jeff Sessions began rolling back the era of legal state sales by instructing federal prosecutors to ignore the Obama-era memo that directed prosecutors to mostly ignore marijuana-related crimes in states where the drug had been legalized.
By rescinding the Cole memo, Sessions left many legal dispensary owners, marijuana growers, and recreational users in the lurch, wondering how federal prosecutors will deal with their emerging industry going forward as the White House moves in the wrong direction.
Here’s a thought: Instead of letting the Department of Justice dictate the country’s drug agenda, what if lawmakers actually, you know, did their jobs and passed a law? Congress could just repeal the Controlled Substances Act––particularly the part that classifies marijuana as a Schedule I substance with no accepted medical use.
Removing marijuana’s classification in the CSA––and beginning to recognize legitimate medical purpose on a federal level––would be smart not just as policy, but also because it would remove all such power from Sessions, making his decrepit decision moot.
Somewhere between 54 and 64 percent of Americans now favor legalization or decriminalization. Support for medical marijuana is at nearly 90 percent. Representatives should take the views of the people seriously and recognize the part they must play in ensuring the DOJ doesn’t tread all over the will of the people. Nine states and Washington D.C. now have recreational sales, and a majority of states have legalized some form of medical use, with no apocalyptic effects. Some studies even suggest opioid use could go down if weed were readily available as an alternative painkiller.
There’s an opening here for Republicans to get on the right side of the issue, and popular opinion. Yes, there are still curmudgeonly conservatives buying into the law and order, reefer madness mentality that has caused us catastrophic harm. But some older conservatives (former Texas Governor Rick Perry, Senator Rand Paul, even Baptist televangelist Pat Robertson) are down with at least medical marijuana, if not some form of decriminalization. Plenty of younger conservatives are prepared to go farther––per Pew, around 63 percent of millennial Republicans were in favor of legalization as of 2015.
“I think the Cole memo let members of Congress off the hook,” said Bill Piper, senior director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “It made the need for statutory change less urgent. Sessions is essentially kicking the ball into their yard, forcing them to deal with it.”
They just might. Minutes after Sessions’ move was made public, a bipartisan group of legislators including Republican Sen. Cory Gardner––who joined every other Republican senator in voting for his former colleague’s nomination as AG, but says he did so after Sessions promised him that he wouldn’t rescind the Cole memo, and thus tamper with Colorado’s thriving pot market, tweeted their frustration.
Meanwhile, back in March, Republican Rep. Thomas A. Garrett introduced the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2017, co-sponsored by Democrat Tulsi Gabbard, Republican Scott Taylor and a dozen others, including Republican Justin Amash. The bill would remove marijuana entirely from the hydra that is the controlled Controlled Substances Act––a bold bill that has predictively stagnated since its introduction. Sessions’ memo could help force it forward.
Letting law enforcement worry about real crimes, and freeing up some of the money used to incarcerate low-level nonviolent offenders would be a boon for fiscal conservatives––even law-and-order types should back it. Conservatives should keep in mind that America’s punitive, rarely-rehabilitative system not only fails at helping people reform their ways, but the drug war has cost more than $1 trillion since Richard Nixon declared it 45 years ago.
Instead of trusting Sessions to sic an army of prosecutors on states, patients, and consumers in various states, Congress should take Gabbard and company’s effort to repeal or amend the CSA seriously. Then, and only then, will they actually be representing the constituents they claim to care so much about.