Impervious to public opinion, voter-enacted laws, science, the Constitution and common sense regarding cannabis, President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have been assembling a virulently anti-pot team that seeks to roll back the Obama administration’s criminal-justice reforms and return federal drug policy to the darkest days of the War on Drugs in the 1980s and early 1990s.
At nearly the four-month mark in his presidency, Trump’s national drug control strategy teeters between chaotic and reckless with his first drug czar nominee, Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.), going down in flames and rumors galore in Washington budgetary circles that the Trump administration is actually going to to slash the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) budget by 95%, effectively closing down the bureaucracy by reducing the staff by half and ending their two primary grants programs.
With the Marino nomination pulled, Richard Baum, a 20-year federal bureaucrat is currently leading the ONDCP. “These drastic proposed cuts are frankly heartbreaking and, if carried out, would cause us to lose many good people who contribute greatly to ONDCP’s mission and core activities,” he lamented on May 5 after an Office of Management and Budget document was leaked to the press.
On May 10, the White House revealed the members of the newly formed Commission on Combatting Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis. They’re a who’s who of well-known advocates for long-failed drug policies, including Massachusetts’ Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, who opposed the cannabis legalization voter initiative that passed in his state in November; North Carolina’s anti-pot Republican Gov. Roy Cooper; former alcoholic, drug addict and Democratic Rhode Island Congressman Patrick Kennedy, who also heads up a national anti-cannabis non-profit, Smart Approaches to Marijuana; Harvard professor and former ONDCP staffer Dr. Bertha Madras, who’s against both medical marijuana and Naloxone; and New Jersey’s rabidly anti-drug Republican Gov. Chris Christie (more about him later in the article).
1. Jeff Sessions
A Republican senator from Alabama for 20 years before Trump appointed him to the nation’s top law-enforcement post, Jeff Sessions has long been the most rabidly anti-marijuana member of Congress, hands down. For his entire political career—most notably when he was Alabama’s attorney general—he has taken every opportunity to show both his ignorance and loathing of cannabis and of the adults who cultivate, sell and consume it. In Issue 23, we summarized his most offensive comments, such as “good people don’t smoke marijuana.”
Since then, he’s stated, “I think medical marijuana has been hyped, maybe too much” and claimed that pot is “only slightly less awful” than heroin. At a press conference held at an Air Force base in Arizona on Apr. 11, Sessions added: “When they nominated me for attorney general, you would have thought the biggest issue in America was when I said, ‘I don’t think America’s going to be a better place if they sell marijuana at every corner grocery store.’ I’m surprised [people] didn’t like that.” (According to the latest Quinnipiac University poll, 59% of Americans favor legalizing marijuana, a historic high point of public support.)
On May 12, Sessions sent shivers down the spines of drug reformers everywhere when he issued a memo that calls for stricter mandatory minimum sentencing in drug cases, wiping out the Obama Justice Department’s efforts to reduce the prison population with more lenient sentencing in non-violent cases. “Consistent with longstanding Department of Justice policy, any decision to vary from policy must be approved by a U.S. Attorney or Assistant Attorney General,” he wrote. The cast of characters Sessions has assembled to take control of the $30-$40 billion a year War on Drugs is just as troubling as his attitude and record.
2. Dr. Scott Gottlieb
Nominated by Trump to be commissioner of the Food and Drug Commission (FDA), New Jersey-born Dr. Scott Gottlieb, 44, is a longtime drug-industry consultant who, if approved, will likely have a major say on issues such as rescheduling marijuana. Efforts to move it out of Schedule I, which forbids any medical use, failed again last year, but if it were rescheduled, that would allow genuine scientific research on its medical safety and utility, free from the influence of federal law-enforcement and propaganda agencies.
Associated with the right-wing American Enterprise Institute think tank, Gottlieb was a deputy commissioner of the FDA in the Bush II administration, and has also served on the boards of Big Pharma firms like GlaxoSmithKline. “He’s basically been a shill for pharmaceutical corporations for much of his career,” says Public Citizen director Dr. Michael Carome. “That has no doubt framed his thinking. They believe he’ll promote their interests.”
From 2013-2105, Gottlieb received $413,000 from various pharmaceutical and medical-device companies. In 2016, he was paid $3 million in speaking fees. Until last May, he was also a director of Kure Corp., which manufactures e-cigs and nicotine products. “With Gottlieb, conflicts of interest should be addressed,”
notes Rachel Sachs, an associate professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis.
3. Tom Price
Trump’s pick for secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), 62, is a physician from Michigan who relocated to the Atlanta suburbs after completing his residency as an orthopedic surgeon at Emory University. In 1996, he was elected to the Georgia Senate, and moved up to the U.S. House in 2004, winning a seventh term last November.
HHS oversees the scientific arms of the narcocracy: the FDA, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration and the National Institutes of Health.
Rather than acknowledge the medicinal benefits of cannabis, Price has consistently relied upon dated and non-scientific talking points to espouse his un-caring views. “He has a long record of opposing marijuana-policy reforms that have come to a vote in the House,” says John Hudak of the Brookings Institute. “Price is a physician, and the medical community broadly has been conservative about the use of medical marijuana, and nearly universally opposes it for recreational use.”
Like Marino, Price voted against the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment (six times) and the VA doctors’ bill (three times), as well as against a bill that would prevent the Department of Justice (DOJ) from targeting adult-use states like Colorado. However, he did back hemp and CBD bills. In 2016, Drug Policy Action and
NORML both gave him Ds for his voting record.
4. Chuck Rosenberg
At press time, the Trump administration had not nominated a new director for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). That keeps Obama holdover Chuck Rosenberg, 56, a longtime drug warrior, on as acting administrator. Rosenberg replaced Bush holdover Michele Leonhart in 2015 after she was kayoed by a sex scandal among DEA agents stationed in Colombia. He too opposes the very idea of medical cannabis. “What really bothers me is the notion that marijuana is also medicinal—because it’s not,” Rosenberg told reporters in 2015. “We can have an intellectually honest debate about whether we should legalize something that is bad and dangerous, but don’t call it medicine—that is a joke. There are pieces of marijuana—extracts or constituents or component parts—that have great promise. But if you talk about smoking the leaf of marijuana—which is what people are talking about when they talk about medicinal marijuana—it has never been shown to be effective as a medicine.”
This reactionary opinion is to the right of Trump and his press secretary, Sean Spicer, who have both occasionally acknowledged the efficacy of cannabis for seriously ill patients. Rosenberg was also a U.S. Attorney and worked as FBI director James Comey’s chief of staff.
5. Steven H. Cook
Appointed by Sessions as a senior official in the Justice Department, Steven Cook is a former cop who rose to prominence as a U.S. Attorney in Tennessee. Like Sessions, he wants to swing drug policy back to the Just Say No cliché of the 1980s, when “we started filling prisons with the worst of the worst,” he said in 2016. “If hardline means my focus is on protecting communities from violent felons and drug traffickers, then I’m guilty. I don’t think that’s hardline. I think that’s exactly what the American people expect of their Department of Justice.”
Cook also opposed the department’s reductions of mandatory-minimum sentences during Obama’s tenure. “We were discouraged from using mandatory minimums,” he complained. “The charging memo handcuffed prosecutors. And it limited when enhancements can be used to increase penalties, an important leverage when you’re dealing with a career offender in getting them to cooperate.” He added: “Drug trafficking is inherently violent. Drug traffickers are dealing in a heavy cash business. They can’t resolve disputes in court. They resolve disputes in the street, and they resolve them through violence.”
With Sessions and Cook running the DOJ, expect the screws to tighten on drug enforcement.
6. Chris Christie
After Trump passed him over for several cabinet-level positions, New Jersey Gov. Christie was tapped in March to head the federal government’s new addiction commission. “Addiction is a disease,” he stated about its focus on the opioid crisis. “It’s a disease that can be treated.”
For more than two decades, first as a U.S. Attorney and then as governor, Christie has often espoused the “gateway theory,” that cannabis use leads to heroin and other hard drugs, although it has been debunked by both the DEA and NIDA.
Several weeks after the presidential election, an emboldened Christie noted in a radio interview that he had “watched too many kids start their addiction with alcohol and marijuana and then move on to much more serious drugs. Every study shows marijuana is a gateway drug.”
After Colorado and Washington both legalized marijuana in 2012, Christie went on the warpath. “I think it’s a mistake,” he bristled. “It’s certainly not something I’ll ever permit as long as I’m governor. We’re not going to have recreational pot in New Jersey.
Christie has also taken a stance against medical marijuana, which is legal in his state. “There’s no such thing,” he chortled. “It’s just marijuana, OK? It’s not different.”
7. John Kelly
A former Marine Corps general may not be a likely advocate for cannabis-law reform. However, in one of his first public interviews since taking over as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), John Kelly surprisingly stated on Apr. 16 that “marijuana is not a factor in the War on Drugs” and that the country’s drug problems would not be solved by “arresting a lot of users.”
Two days later, Kelly did an about-face. “Let me clear about marijuana,” he said. “It is a potentially dangerous gateway drug that frequently leads to harder drugs. Its use and possession is against federal law, and until the law is changed by the U.S. Congress, we in DHS, along with the rest of the federal government, are sworn to uphold all the laws that are on the books.”
Kelly went on to explain that, “when marijuana is found at aviation check-points and baggage screening, [Transportation Security Administration] personnel will also take appropriate action,” and that Immigration and Customs Enforcement “will continue to use marijuana possession, distribution and convictions as essential elements as they build their deportation-and-remove packages for targeted operations against illegal aliens.”
Which goes to show you can’t trust any unscripted positive statements about marijuana or drug-policy reform that come from the Trump administration.
The participation of former prosecutors, ardent drug warriors and Big Pharma insiders like Sessions, Gottlieb, Price, Cook, Christie, Rosenberg and Kelly in future policy-making regarding cannabis
is cause for major concern. Though the White House has not yet made any decisions or pronouncements on whether it will continue the Obama administration’s policies of tolerating state legalization up to a point, it’s hard to remain optimistic that it will for much longer.
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