Sessions: A Buzzkill for Marijuana

Terry H. Schwadron

Jan. 5, 2017

The Republican belief system leans heavily towards states’ rights.

Except for when it doesn’t.

So, according to current official Republcian thinking, spending tax money to allow people access to health care is much better handled at the state level than the federal level, banking and consumer rules should only apply locally, and certainly any support for public schools should be local.

But then, the same Republicans want anti-abortion rules stretching across all national and international agreements, elimination of environmental rules a national policy and educational choice something that all should be subscribing to support.

Traditional Democratic support is that all levels of government ought to spend money on social services, and that the feds should be involved in setting goals.

Now come marijuana laws, grown and approved locally, but in contradiction with federal laws and enforcement practices. Eight states have approved decriminalization of marijuana for “recreational” use, and the news has been exploring the huge efforts already under way in California, the most populous state to make the move. In each case, the decision followed public referendum votes, with plenty of opportunity for those opposing the idea to be heard.

But Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions, a Republican with longtime disdain towards use of marijuana, equates marijuana with heroin and vows to crack down on the burgeoning industry. Now, prohibition laws in general always seem to be among those few issues that will get terribly touchy when you bring the states into conflict with the federal government.

There are other recent moves in this administration to breach the federal-state wall, including a public position by the head of ICE, the immigration police, to threaten criminal charges against local governors and mayors who declare “sanctuary” status for immigrants — meaning not local officials will not turn over violators of traffic and other low-level crimes to the feds for deportation in hopes of preserving ties with local immigrant communities for more important crime investigation.

And there are other campaigns, including environmental rules, where state policy is seeking to surpass federal thinking. In California, for example, the state government is backing plans to require all-electric cars over the next 10 years, in marked difference with federal policies that favor continued reliance on oil-based fuels.

It was not immediately clear whether the bigger enforcement announcement will actually result in arrests or prove more of an official tsk-tsk for marijuana usage. What the announcement will do is to strew general confusion over attempts to launch new businesses growing, selling and packaging marijuana — and therefore generating a crop of lawsuits for state and federal courts to fight over.

Sessions said future prosecutions would be up to individual U.S. attorneys. However, the announcement appeared intended to discourage marijuana-related business by being deliberately vague about future federal enforcement efforts.

California began allowing the sale of recreational marijuana with the new year, joining Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Nevada. Massachusetts and possibly Maine later this year.

Sessions has asked the Senate to drop rules that block the Justice Department from bypassing state laws to enforce a federal ban on medical marijuana as well. The opposition does cut across party lines, putting Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) on the same side against Sessions.

With about a fifth of Americans in states where recreational marijuana is legal (and more in states with legal medical marijuana), the marijuana business is projecting revenues in the billions of dollars a year, starting now.

Currently, there is a federal provision stopping the Justice Department from spending money to block state laws allowing medical marijuana. The Obama administration had decided not to interfere with recreational laws — so long as marijuana sales remained in the state. Those Obama policies are known as the Cole memo, after former Deputy Atty. Gen. Jim Cole, who wrote them.

Last spring, several senators asked Sessions to follow that principle, even promoting the idea of tax deductions for business expenses for marijuana businesses. Sessions set up a tax force to consider ways to bolster federal enforcement.

Generally, those opposing marijuana use argue the issue as moral and support for anti-drug efforts. Generally, proponents of legalizing marijuana argue that the move curbs the black market, slows crimes like money laundering and note that marijuana laws generally are enforced unfairly along racial lines.

It’s one of those cases where perhaps the attorney general should, um, chill out and go with the flow.


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