Jeff Sessions’ Endless War On Marijuana

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The key to understanding the Trump administration’s approach to policy, it seems, is to look at what most Americans want and then imagine the opposite.

Consider the new guidance on marijuana that Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued last week, which reverses Obama-era policy and gives prosecutors more leeway to enforce federal laws against the drug in states where it is legal. Mr. Sessions has been on a lifelong crusade against the plant, which he considers the root of many of society’s ills.

And yet more than six in 10 Americans, and seven in 10 of those under 30, believe marijuana should be legal, twice as many as in 2000. Three-quarters of the public believe the federal government should not prosecute the drug’s sale or use in states where it is legal.

In other words, the new policy is deeply unpopular. Many of its harshest critics are members of the president’s own party, who expressed outrage at the reversal of Mr. Trump’s  campaign promise to leave the matter to the states.

Senator Cory Gardner, Republican of Colorado, where legalized marijuana has spawned a $1 billion industry, threatened to  block all nominees to the Justice Department until the new policy is dropped.

Representative Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican, laid the blame at the feet of Mr. Sessions, saying he “betrayed us on this.” A 2014 law co-sponsored by Mr. Rohrabacher prohibits the Justice Department from going after users, growers or sellers of medical marijuana in states where it is legal. The use of recreational marijuana became legal in California on Jan. 1. Even Matt Gaetz, the Florida representative last seen trying to get the special counsel Robert Mueller fired, said the new policy showed Mr. Sessions’ “desire to pursue an antiquated, disproven dogma instead of the will of the American people.”

None of this will bother the attorney general, a lifelong antidrug crusader who runs the Justice Department like it’s 1988, when the war on drugs was at full throttle and the kneejerk political response was to be as punitive as possible. Mr. Sessions has long held a particular enmity for pot, which he continues to demonize. “Good people don’t smoke marijuana,” he said in 2016.

This is wrongheaded for so many reasons. It’s out of step with current knowledge about the risks and benefits of marijuana, which the federal government classified as a Schedule I drug in 1970. By that definition, it has no accepted medical use and is more dangerous than cocaine. Obviously this is outdated, and Congress needs to do its part by removing marijuana from Schedule I. But nothing is stopping Mr. Sessions in the meantime from accepting scientific facts.

The new policy is also blind to the massive cultural shift toward legalization that has been happening at the state level in recent years, after decades of outrageously harsh punishments that have fallen disproportionately on the shoulders of people of color. Eight states have now legalized marijuana for recreational use. California is now the world’s largest legal market for pot. Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia allow marijuana to be used for medical purposes. By the end of this year, it is estimated that legal marijuana will be a $9 billion industry.

Finally, to the extent the new policy redirects scarce government resources toward more marijuana prosecutions, it will undermine efforts to address more serious drug problems, like the opioid crisis, an actual public-health emergency that kills tens of thousands of people a year.

The full impact of the Sessions memo isn’t immediately clear. Federal prosecutors are overstretched, and only bring a small number of marijuana prosecutions as it is. But the memo has already created legal uncertainty in states that have partly or fully legalized marijuana, leaving users, growers and sellers to wonder whether their actions will be ignored or will land them behind bars.

Whatever its ultimate impact, the memo is yet another example of how the Justice Department under Jeff Sessions is turning back the clock on smart, evidence-based justice policy. His unwelcome revival of the war on drugs will last at least as long as the attorney general does. It is one of the reasons he has endured the continuing humiliations of working for Donald Trump.