Four days after California rang in the New Year as the sixth state to legalize recreational use of marijuana — and more than 21 years after it became the first state to legalize medical marijuana use — Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared war on the most populous state.
Sessions issued a Marijuana Enforcement Memo providing guidance to US Attorneys on “which marijuana activities to prosecute” by following “well-established principles” to “disrupt criminal organizations, tackle the growing drug crisis, and thwart violent crime across our country.”
The Trump administration’s Pot Memo doesn’t immediately affect medical marijuana usage — now available in 29 states, plus the District of Columbia — but it does roll back the 2014 Cole Memorandum, which guided federal prosecutors away from targeting marijuana businesses operating legally under state law.
The Cole Memo was a federal response to the growing shift in public opinion given the number of states “that have moved to legalize marijuana for medicinal, agricultural or recreational use.”
The Sessions memo sent ripples through a cannabis industry already struggling to fund state legalization under contradictory federal laws, but those who have been on the front lines of the legal battles responded forcefully. As Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said:
Jeff Sessions’ obsession with marijuana prohibition defies logic, threatens successful state-level reforms and flies in the face of widespread public support for legalization.
Rescinding the Cole memo is not just an attack on sensible marijuana polices — it’s an attack on civil and human rights. Police have long relied on the suspicion of minor marijuana offenses to profile, harass, arrest and even lock up massive numbers of people, especially in communities of color. We can’t stand by and let the drug war be used as a tool to harm vulnerable communities or to deport and destroy families.
The “principles” alluded to by Sessions include the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, a product of the “war on drugs” initiated by Richard Nixon. In 1994, Nixon’s domestic policy advisor John Ehrlichman candidly admitted the racist roots of Nixon’s crusade to Dan Baum of Harper’s Magazine:
You want to know what this was really all about? The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.
Arrests for small-scale possession and distribution of pot have been the leading edge of drug enforcement ever since, which, in combination with the mandatory minimum sentencing laws created by Bill Clinton’s two crime bills, created the system of mass incarceration under which people of color and the poor have been disproportionately pushed into an overpopulated prison system.
The US still has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and 57 percent of those in prison for drug offenses are Black or Latino — even though white people use and sell drugs at similar rates.
All of this has come at a tremendous cost, not only in lives ruined, but in taking money away from social programs that can help people live stable and healthy lives. The US spends more than $50 billion a year on the drug war — far more than the entire $38.8 billion budget of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
But the tide has been turning against these policies. 2016 saw a record number of measures to legalize or decriminalize marijuana. Voters across the country rejoiced when Maine, Massachusetts and California legalized recreational marijuana, while five other states — Arkansas, Florida, Montana, Nevada and North Dakota — legalized medical marijuana use.
Marijuana legalization is more popular than it has ever been, with a recent Gallup pollfinding it favored by 64 percent of Americans.
The “growing drug crisis” Sessions lectured about has nothing to do with marijuana legalization and everything to do with how our society treats addiction and mental health in general and regulates our access to health care, housing and food.
As Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, pointed out in a 2014 interview with Frontline,
Drug abuse and drug addiction is not unique to poor communities of color. It is like this everywhere in America, but how we respond to drug abuse and drug addiction in poor communities of color is radically different than how we respond to it in more privileged communities….
People in [poor] communities have little choice but to self-medicate, and when they do, when they decide to turn to marijuana or turn to cocaine or turn to some type of substance we’ve designed, we’ve decided is prohibited, is off-limits, then rather than responding to these people with drug treatment and say[ing], “How can we help you cope with your crisis and help you through this period of time and help you deal with your drug addiction?” instead we say: “Oh, the answer for you is a cage.”…
That’s our answer to drug abuse and drug addiction in these communities. If we really cared about people who lived there, would that be our answer? I think not. I think the way in which we respond to drug abuse and drug addiction in these communities speaks volumes about the extent to which these are people we truly care about.
There are ongoing debates and critiques about whether legalization and regulation have done more to benefit cannabis businesses than individuals who gain new access to marijuana. But there is no credible defense for the racism at the heart of the “war on drugs” and the US criminal justice system.
No matter how you read the pot leaves say about the future of the marijuana market, one thing is certain. It will take large-scale protests to make Sessions and his fellow drug warriors afraid again. And it will require a movement that puts the fight against racism front and center to successfully fight for access to health care and decriminalization to turn the tide on mass incarceration and drug addiction.
The “war on drugs” doesn’t work, and it will require strategies based on solidarity and liberation to take up the calls to put an end to it. As the Drug Policy Alliance urges, “It’s time for a new approach grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights.”
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