Kicking Sessions’ can down the road

Angela K. Evans | Boulder Weekly

That mysterious object sailing majestically past the Justice Department high above Pennsylvania Avenue was the marijuana policy can being kicked down the road by Jeff Sessions’ Crime Reduction and Public Safety Task Force.

A lot of people in the marijuana industry and pot legalization activists had expected the task force to come up with policy recommendations for restarting the war on marijuana in states that have legalized both medical and recreational pot.

It didn’t happen.

The task force submitted its recommendations to Sessions at the end of July. They were supposed to be kept secret, but someone leaked portions to the Associated Press.

The most important tidbit had to do with whether the Justice Department should “maintain, revise, or rescind” the Department’s (mostly) hands off existing policy on enforcing federal anti-pot laws in states that have legalized, provided they take steps to keep marijuana out of states that haven’t legalized it, and out of the hands of criminal cartels and kids.

The task force’s recommendation: Federal officials should continue to “evaluate” the issue.

Three other task force recommendations were equally insipid:

• According to the AP, the task force suggested teaming Justice and Treasury Department officials to offer guidance to financial institutions, telling them to implement robust anti-money laundering programs and report suspicious transactions involving businesses in states where pot is legal — all of which is already required by federal law.

• The task force also suggested officials develop “centralized guidance, tools and data related to marijuana enforcement.” Two years ago, the Government Accountably Office told the Justice Department essentially the same thing.

• The task force also said administration officials should continue to oppose rules that block the Justice Department from interfering with medical marijuana programs in states where it is legal. Congress is currently in the process of re-enacting those rules, despite a plea from Sessions in May not to do so.

So why did the task force, who’s membership includes more than its fair share of drug war dead-enders, choose to kick the can down the road?

John Hudak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies marijuana law and who was interviewed by the task force, thinks it might be because the task force knew if it just came out and told Sessions that stuffing the legalization genie back into the bottle was impossible, he would reject anything it recommended out of hand.

“If they come out with a more progressive, liberal policy, the attorney general is just going to reject it,” he said. “They need to convince the attorney general that the recommendations are the best they can do without embarrassing the entire department by implementing a policy that fails.”

Mason Tvert, who led Colorado’s legalization campaign, said the vague recommendations are consistent with the fact that “there’s as much evidence that Sessions intends to maintain the system [currently in place] and help improve upon it as there is that he intends to roll it back.”

It may also be that the task force formulated its recommendations with an eye on public opinion, as reflected most recently in a Quinnipiac University poll released last week.

It found that 61 percent of those polled favored legalizing marijuana, compared with 33 percent opposed, a finding consistent with several other polls taken over the past year. The same poll found that more than seven in 10 Americans aged 18-49 favored legalization, and that the only two demographics opposed were Republicans, 58 percent of whom remained opposed, and Americans over age 65, 52 percent of whom were opposed.

The poll also found that legal medical marijuana was overwhelmingly supported by a 94 to 4 percent margin, including at least 90 percent support in all demographic groups.

And 75 percent of those polled opposed the federal government “enforcing federal laws against marijuana in states that have already legalized medical or recreational marijuana,” with every demographic opposed to federal meddling, including 59 percent of Republicans.

This last finding may be the most telling. It means if Sessions decides to launch a war on legal marijuana, he may find himself walking into a political buzz-saw, and chances are his task force knows it even if the attorney general doesn’t.

And so the task force did the sensible thing and kicked the can down the road. Far down the road.