United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been squatting over state-legalized cannabis industries across the country, pinching out a grumpy loaf of reefer madness every so often. Reported to have said that he thought members of the Ku Klux Klan "were okay until I found out they smoked pot" in the ’80s, Sessions had repeatedly expressed his distaste for the plant and those who support it long before taking office as AG in January.
And just when we think he's retreated back into his hollow tree with the other Keebler elves, news will break about Sessions trying to undermine medical cannabis research or congressional protections for the legal industry, or simply making comments about the plant that don't stack up with science. One group of medical patients and minority owners of cannabis businesses — including a twelve-year-old in Colorado and a former Denver Bronco — sued Sessions over the federal scheduling of cannabis in July, but that hasn't stopped Ol' Jeffy from causing a ruckus.
Here's our summary of Sessions's most annoying marijuana meddling in 2017. We'll get started on next year's list on January 1.
A Thorn From the Beginning
Sessions was the first United States senator to fully support Donald Trump's presidential campaign, so few were surprised as he emerged as Trump's choice for AG...even though plenty were alarmed. Despite uttering such remarks as "Good people don't smoke marijuana" and "We need grownups in Washington to say marijuana is not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized" during a Senate hearing in April 2016, Sessions dodged cannabis questions from his former colleagues during his confirmation hearing in January 2017.
During a National Association of Attorneys General meeting in Washington, D.C., in February, Sessions got his voice back: “I, as you know, am dubious about marijuana. States can pass whatever laws they choose, but I’m not sure we’re going to be a better, healthier nation if we have marijuana being sold at every corner grocery store," he said. "I just don’t think that’s going to be good for us, and we’ll have to work our way through that."
In March, the International Business Times reported that a Drug Enforcement Administration supervisor had sent an email to a prosecutor in the Colorado Attorney General’s office seeking pot-related information “for the new administration," including case numbers for several prosecutions relating to marijuana.
In February, Sessions tied cannabis to opiate abuse in a talk with state attorneys general: "Marijuana is a cure for opiate abuse? Give me a break," he said. "This is the kind of argument that has been made out there. It's almost a desperate attempt to defend the harmlessness of marijuana or even its benefits. I doubt that's true. Maybe science will prove I'm wrong, but at this point in time, you and I have a responsibility to use our best judgment, that which we've learned over a period of years, and speak the truth as best we can."
A 2014 study found that annual overdose rates were nearly 25 percent lower in states with medical cannabis than those without them, while a 2013 study from Columbia University also found that states with medical marijuana laws had fewer individuals using opioids.
In August, DEA officials told the Denver Post that the DOJ was preventing it from taking action on more than two dozen official requests to grow cannabis for research purposes. That same month, four congressmen, including Colorado Representative Jared Polis, sent Sessions a letter expressing their concern over the DEA's claims. Even the Brookings Institution called out Sessions, publishing an essay criticizing his "biases on the issue, a division of opinion between him and the president he serves, and a federal government effort to stand in the way of the free conduct of research."
Meddling in Colorado
As the first state to legalize recreational cannabis and begin selling it, Colorado seemed destined to wind up in Sessions's cross-hairs, and it did numerous times in 2017. After a couple of months of tough talk from Sessions, Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman invited him here to see for himself how cannabis is regulated, sold and used. In April, Governor John Hickenlooper sent a letter to Sessions and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, urging that federal officials “engage with us before embarking on any changes to regulatory and enforcement systems.” Hickenlooper subsequently met privately with Sessions in D.C.; after speaking with Sessions, Hickenlooper said he didn't see the feds butting in.
But then Sessions sent a letter to the governor in late July, citing rising out-of-state diversion of marijuana, youth use, emergency-room visits and traffic deaths related to marijuana as cause for "serious questions." The stats he used, however, were from the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Report, which has drawn criticism for its data-collecting and presentation methods.
Revamping Federal Enforcement
Although he hasn't yet ordered a crackdown on any state's retail cannabis industries, Sessions has made some moves that suggest he might be arming himself for battle. In April, he sent a memo to U.S. attorneys announcing a task force within the Justice Department that would evaluate cannabis policy to “identify ways in which the federal government can more effectively combat illegal immigration and violent crime, such as gun crime, drug trafficking, and gang violence."
In June, MassRoots reporter Tom Angell published a letter that Sessions had sent to congressional leaders, asking them to undo the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, which grants federal protections for medical marijuana.
Federal drug policy and DOJ officials met privately in July with Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers, a vocal opponent of legal pot, as well as Colorado Springs police and other community leaders as part of a closed-door tour focusing on Colorado’s burgeoning legal marijuana industry. "Everyone in Colorado Springs known to have met with the federal officials has either expressed strong concern about legalized marijuana or its opposition," reads a report from the Colorado Springs Gazette.
And during a press conference in late November announcing DEA projects to combat the national opioid crisis, Sessions told reporters that the DOJ is looking at ways to increase federal enforcement against cannabis use, something he called "detrimental" to the country.
Rallying the Troops
Sessions's unfaltering disdain for cannabis has sparked new energy in pot prohibitionists, whose efforts had begun to wane in recent years thanks to the public's growing support for legalization. For example, Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a group dedicated to fighting marijuana commercialization, released a report in August calling on Sessions to go after state-regulated pot industries.
Although SAM is a national group, Colorado has seen its fair share of new pot opponents, too, including Jeff Hunt and the Centennial Institute. Hunt, who works at Colorado Christian University and is head of the Centennial Institute, penned an op-ed for USA Today in August chastising the state's decision to legalize, held a conference at CCU to rally fellow cannabis opponents, participated in a broadcast debate with a pro-cannabis attorney and called on Colorado lawmakers to return any donations from the cannabis industry — all in 2017. During the CCU conference, Hunt admitted that Sessions's opposition to pot legalization helped inspire him to voice his opinion more...and he wasn't the only one.
Justin Luke Riley announced the launch of his Marijuana Accountability Coalition on November 6, the five-year anniversary of Amendment 64's passage by voters. Vowing to "push back on the recreational marijuana industry" in Colorado, Riley paid for an electronic billboard on the 16th Street Mall that asked this question: "Are you better off than you were five years ago?" He also credits Sessions for helping him find his voice.
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