The perfect storm

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The announcement that Trump plans to nominate Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions to Attorney General startled many with a stake in marijuana and drug law reform. With a long legacy of opposing cannabis, Sessions’ confirmation could be a return to a full-fledged war on drugs, replete with human casualties.

At a Senate hearing in April, Sessions said, “We need grown-ups in charge in Washington to say marijuana is not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized” and that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.”

If these statements translate into policy they will certainly stymie if not reverse the progress made under state-level legalization and decriminalization.

Many stakeholders and advocates are quick to hedge these fears, pointing to the economic success of legal marijuana markets and to Trump’s assumed proclivity for upholding the right of states to self-legislate.

But if history is any lesson, Sessions’ moral opposition to cannabis is but one of his dangerous positions when it comes to marijuana reform.

He also displays racist tendencies and anti-immigrant positions. Put them all together and you have the perfect storm for another full-fledged drug war.

Sessions’ first brush with national politics came in 1986 when President Reagan nominated him, then a prosecutor in Alabama, for a federal judgeship. Ultimately, he was not confirmed amid accusations of racism.

Prosecutor Thomas Figures, who had worked in Sessions’ Alabama office, claimed the nominee had commented that he was OK with Ku Klux Klan members “until I learned they smoked pot.” Sessions later said his comment about the KKK was a joke, but the damage had already been done. 

More recently the Senator has been building a reputation with his extreme opposition to immigration. As the leading opponent of the 2007 amnesty bill and 2013 “Gang of Eight” amnesty bill, he is widely credited for killing both efforts.

Currently, he serves as Chairman of the Subcommittee on Immigration and the National Interest where he promotes limits to illegal and legal immigration, the erection of fences and walls along the U.S. southern border and regularly contests Obama’s immigration executive actions. 

Not surprisingly, after becoming the first and only senator to endorse Trump during the 2015 primary campaign, Sessions was enlisted to write Trump’s immigration and trade policies.

Historically, whether by correlation or causation, precisely such a mix of morality-based policy, racist sentiments and anti-immigration politics are the three pillars of the war on drugs or, perhaps more accurately, a war on people, specifically black, brown and poor people.

One need not look any further than 1986 when Reagan reinvigorated Nixon’s anti-drug effort saying: “Drugs are bad, and we’re going after them. As I’ve said before, we’ve taken down the surrender flag and run up the battle flag. And we’re going to win the war on drugs.”

Here, as with Sessions’ comments on marijuana, the villain appears to be the drug itself. But if the resulting policy targeted that subject, the resulting war would likely have had far less casualties. Instead, drug traffickers and dealers, closely followed by users, are the central villains.

Reagan’s Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 not only funded the war on drugs but created mandatory minimum penalties for drug offenses, widely criticized for promoting significant racial disparities in the enforcement of drug laws, specifically because of the differences in sentencing for crack and powder cocaine. Possession of crack, which is cheaper, results in a harsher sentence; the majority of crack users are lower income and the majority of people arrested for its sale or possession are black.

The war on drugs also resulted in anti-immigrant sentiments and an increased concentration of enforcement along the Mexico border. Used to justify armed U.S. military presence in Mexico and other drug-producing countries, the war on drugs started an era of violence in the name of suppressing drug cartels and other forms of trafficking.

The result of these efforts were that people, mostly black, Latino and poor, were piling up dead or in prisons. Despite similar use across races, black and Latino communities were and still are arrested, prosecuted and jailed at a much higher rate than white users.

The legacy of this effort is stagnant levels of drug trafficking and use, despite a ballooning prison population that grew 900 percent between 1971 and today.

Bit by bit, states have been creating laws to work around the failed war on drugs and the attorney general has played a crucial role in tolerating that activity. But if and when Sessions is confirmed, that delicate truce is likely to be upended.

Not only will it be within his power to recommend the federal government sue states that are out of compliance with U.S. drug law, but he can also establish enforcement priorities that would likely lead to a renewed targeting of supply chain. In legal markets this would mean legal prosecution of growers, sellers etc., but in illegal domestic and international markets this would be a return to none other than the criminalization of the pusher.

If Sessions is confirmed as Attorney General, there is more to fear than the loss of marijuana economies or individual freedoms. His moral objection to drugs, racist tendencies and anti-immigrant positions suggest a return to draconian laws that unequally target, punish and harm the poorest and most vulnerable people and communities among us.

“I think one of [Obama’s] great failures, it’s obvious to me, is his lax treatment in comments on marijuana,” Sessions said in April. “It reverses 20 years almost of hostility to drugs that began really when Nancy Reagan started ‘Just Say No.’”