Attorney General Jeff Sessions turned the Cole Memorandum into legal coleslaw last week, causing a lot of people to wonder if the action might blow up in his face.
A week later, signs of this happening are promising.
The “Cole Memo” was authored by then Deputy Attorney General James Cole in 2013 and sent to all 93 U.S. Attorneys. It said, in so many words, don’t enforce federal laws against marijuana in states that have legalized it, provided they do things like prevent drugged driving, sale of pot to minors, smuggling of locally produced pot into states where it’s illegal, and so on.
And with that, recreational and/or medical marijuana legalization has gone forward in 29 states and the District of Columbia without provoking a confrontation with the Federal government, where 80 years of reefer madness is encrusted like arterial plaque in the U.S. Code.
What Sessions did was rescind the Cole Memo and tell the U.S. Attorneys to use their discretion in prosecuting marijuana cases.
Pushback was swift and fierce — starting with Colorado Republican Senator Cory Gardner, who went ballistic on the Senate floor and vowed to hold up confirmation of all Justice Department appointees requiring Senate approval until Sessions reversed course.
Gardner had good reason to be steamed; Sessions had lied to him: “Before I voted to confirm Attorney General Sessions, he assured me that marijuana would not be a priority for this Administration,” he said. “Today’s action directly contradicts what I was told… In 2016, President Trump said marijuana legalization should be left up to the states and I agree,” he added.
Alaska Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski called Sessions’ action “disruptive to state regulatory regimes and regrettable.”
Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul said, “The federal government has better things to focus on.”
Florida Republican Representative Matt Gaetz, described by the website Drug War Chronicle as “a leading Trump ally,” called Sessions’ decision “heartless and cold.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi also chimed in:
“Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision bulldozes over the will of the American people and insults the democratic process under which majorities of voters in California and in states across the nation supported decriminalization at the ballot box,” she said. “Yet again, Republicans expose their utter hypocrisy in paying lip service to states’ rights while trampling over laws they personally dislike.”
Boulder Democratic Representative and gubernatorial candidate Jared Polis, a founding member of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, said, “The Trump Administration needs to back off and allow marijuana to be treated like alcohol under the law… ”
The Politico website/magazine published a long piece speculating on whether Sessions’ decision improved the odds of Congress acting to legalize marijuana.
What should we make of all this? First, all the righteous rhetoric is just that — rhetoric — unless Congress chooses to act. There are bills already introduced in Congress to remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act and treat it like alcohol or, failing that, to exempt it from federal prohibitions in states that have legalized it. Gardner, Murkowski, Pelosi, et al. should get behind them or introduce their own.
Second, if there was any lingering doubt that Democrats would make marijuana an issue in the 2018 election, Sessions has ended it.
The Democrats’ biggest challenge in 2018 will be turning out Democrat-leaning lazy voters, the two largest groups of which are the young (ages 18-30) and blacks. Both groups are overwhelmingly in favor of legalizing marijuana (more than 70 percent in some polls). They are also the groups most likely to be targeted in a renewed drug war. Sessions just gave them a reason to vote.
The more interesting question is what Trump will do with this issue.
Maybe this: Trump has his first State of the Union speech coming up. It would be a fine forum in which to ask Congress to pass some sort of legislation giving the states final say on marijuana legalization, which he said he favored during the campaign. Trump has been pretty assiduous about keeping his campaign promises. Keeping his pot promise might also help pull his job approval rating out of the toilet — and help keep the Republican Party from going over a cliff in 2018.