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Smoked Sessions: Profile of Attorney General Jeff Sessions

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Donald Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions is no friend of marijuana. But how much do you know about Sessions’ history?

One can only imagine the collectively held breath of thousands of cannabis-related companies, tens of thousands of industry employees and millions of pot consumers during the confirmation hearings for Sen. Jeff Sessions (R–AL) at the Capitol in Washington, D.C. in January, just prior to Donald Trump’s inauguration as the 45th president of the United States.

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Donald Trump with his Attorney General.

As the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings played out, cannabis supporters waited for any indication of whether or not Jeff Sessions, as Attorney General, would continue the policies of the Obama administration, or apply traditional federal criminal justice resources and enforcement in states with liberalized marijuana policies for adult and/or medical use.

It’s an $8 billion question. Since 2014, when adult-use sales began in Colorado and have since gone into effect in three more states, $8 billion in cannabis commerce has been generated. Will Jeff Sessions and Donald Trump stomp all over the marijuana industry, or allow it to flourish? Looking at Sessions’ track record, the most likely answer is the former.

An ex-prosecutor and longtime culture warrior, Sessions has vehemently opposed any measure of cannabis law reform no matter how slight, making discordant comments during his three terms in the Senate, dating back to 1995. He’s particularly known for:

• Stating that he thought the KKK was “OK, until I found out they smoked pot.”
• Telling a Senate hearing that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.”
• Criticizing the Obama administration for failing to enforce federal anti-cannabis laws in legal states like Colorado.

During the nomination hearings, Sessions was questioned by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D–VT), who hails from a state that legalized medical access to cannabis more than a decade ago, decriminalized adult possession in 2013 and last year came within a few votes of becoming the first state in the union to legalize cannabis via legislation rather than through a popular voter ballot initiative.

Here’s how the exchange went:

Sen. Leahy: “Would you use our federal resources to investigate and prosecute sick people who are using marijuana in accordance with state law even though
it might violate federal law?”

Sessions: “I won’t commit to never enforcing federal law, Senator Leahy, but absolutely it’s a problem of resources for the federal government. The Department of Justice under [AG Loretta] Lynch and [AG Eric] Holder set forth some policies that they thought were appropriate to define what cases should be prosecuted in states that have legalized, at least in some fashion, marijuana, some parts of marijuana.” Sen.

Leahy: “Do you agree with those guidelines?”

Sessions: “I think some of them are truly valuable in evaluating cases, but fundamentally the criticism I think that was legitimate is that they may not have been followed. Using good judgment about how to handle these cases will be a responsibility of mine. I know it won’t be an easy decision, but I will try to do my duty in a fair and just way.”

Sen. Leahy: “The reason I mention this is because you have some very strong views, you even mandated the death penalty for anyone convicted of a second offense of drug trafficking, including marijuana, even though mandatory death penalties and, of course, unconstitutional.”

Sessions: “Well, I’m not sure under what circumstances I said that, but I don’t think it sounds like something I would normally say.”

Sen. Leahy: “Would you say it’s not your view today?”

Sessions: “It is not my view today.”

Sen. Mike Lee (R–UT) followed up with this question: “You have an interesting set of circumstances with our controlled substances laws concerning marijuana. For the first time in a very long time you’ve seen some attention paid to federalism, but in a limited area associated with marijuana. There are federal laws prohibiting the use of marijuana, the sale of marijuana and the production of marijuana that apply regardless of whether a state has independently criminalized that drug, as every state, until recently, had. Then you had some states coming along and decriminalizing it sometimes in the medical context, other times in a broader context. The response by the Department of Justice during the Obama administration has been interesting and it’s been different than it has been in other areas. They have been slow to recognize, for instance, federalism elsewhere; they chose to recognize it here. My question to you is, did the way they responded to that federalism concern run afoul of separation of powers? Can the department’s approach to this issue be identified as a federalism issue?”

Sessions: “I’m not sure I fully understand the point of the question—you’re talking about separations of powers within the federal government, right? The three branches of federal government?

Sen. Lee: “Yes.” Sessions: “And how does that implicate the marijuana laws?”

Sen. Lee: “Yes. Are there separation of powers concerns arising out of the Department of Justice’s current approach to state marijuana laws?”

Sessions: “I think one obvious concern is that the United States Congress has made the possession of marijuana in every state, and distribution of it, an illegal act. If that’s something that’s not desired any longer, Congress should pass a law to change the rule. It’s not so much the Attorney General’s job to decide what laws to enforce. We should do our job and enforce laws effectively as we’re able.”

Southern Man

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A picture from Jeff Session’s yearbook from 1965.

Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III was born on Dec. 24, 1946 in Selma, Ala. The son of working-class parents, Sessions was an Eagle Scout and a Young Republican growing up. In 1969, he graduated from Huntington College, in Montgomery, where he was student body president, and in 1973 he graduated from the University of Alabama School of Law, in Tuscaloosa. He served as a captain in the Army Reserve from 1973–1986.

After a couple of years in private practice, in 1975 Jeff Sessions was appointed Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama, thus beginning his political career. Six years later he was nominated by President Ronald Reagan to become the U.S. Attorney for the district. Sessions was confirmed and held the position until 1993.

However, Sessions’ second nomination by Reagan, for a U.S. District Court judgeship in 1986, didn’t go as well. In a bruising and public rebuke, the Senate rejected his bid to serve in that position based on his history of racial insensitivity during his employ as U.S. Attorney.

Coretta Scott King and the NAACP opposed that nomination primarily due to Sessions’ prosecution of three African-American community activists on trumped-up voter fraud charges in 1985 (one of the accused, Albert Turner, was a former MLK aide); the “Marion Three” defendants were ultimately acquitted. “Mr. Sessions has used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens.” King wrote to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Mar. 19, 1986. “I urge the Senate Judiciary Committee to deny his confirmation.”

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Sessions has also been accused of calling the NAACP and the ALCU “un-American” and “communist-inspired,” and of referring to a black Assistant U.S. Attorney as “boy.” When his crass comment about the KKK smoking marijuana (he said that in 1981, while investigating the murder of a black man killed by two Klansmen in Mobile, Ala.) was brought up in the 1986 hearings, Sessions called it a joke—“a silly comment, I guess you might say I made.” (At his 2016 hearings, he further explained, when asked, in writing, about the quote: “My words have been grossly mischaracterized and taken out of context…. I was discussing the value of treating people for using dangerous and illegal drugs like marijuana, and the context in which treatment is successful.”)

At that time, over 30 years ago, committee member Sen. Ted Kennedy described Jeff Sessions as “a throwback to a shameful era, which I know black and white Americans thought was in our past. It is inconceivable to me that a person of this attitude is qualified to be a U.S. Attorney, let alone a U.S. federal judge.”

Although Sessions was not confirmed (by a 10-8 vote), the rejection didn’t derail his political career. In 1994, he won the race for Attorney General of Alabama, and two years later he was elected to the U.S. Senate.

From Senator to Attorney General

Unlike many other elected policymakers of his generation, the 70-year-old attorney from Mobile has no stated experience with using cannabis, and appears to have lived a life in which marijuana was not prevalent.

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Jeff Sessions as a U.S. Senator in 1997.

In Sessions’ time in the Senate, he has concentrated on criminal justice matters and has opposed drug policy reforms, while at the same time being a strong proponent of civil forfeiture directed at drug-related activity. Sessions has consistently been ranked by non-profit drug policy reform groups as one of the staunchest opponents to marijuana law reforms in the Senate, along with fellow Republicans Rob Portman (OH), Chuck Grassley (IA) and John Cornyn (TX).

Sessions made his most famous statement about cannabis, that “good people don’t smoke marijuana,” at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last April dubbed “Protecting the Public from the Impact of State Recreational Marijuana Legalization,” where his decidedly anachronistic and unpopular views about marijuana were on full display.

Sessions discussed at length his admiration for Nancy Reagan and her Just Say No anti-drug campaign in the 1980s, which he claimed “moved this country from 50% of high school seniors using marijuana or another drug to less than half of that.” He praised the Reagan administration for “the creating of knowledge that this drug is dangerous, you cannot play with it, it’s not funny, it’s not something to laugh about,” and for “trying to send that message with clarity that good people don’t smoke marijuana.”

Sessions also attacked President Obama over the issue, saying, “We need grownups in charge in Washington to say marijuana is not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized,” and, “I believe the president needs to reassert some leadership on this. I think the president needs to speak out. I think it’s one of [Obama’s] great failures. It’s been obvious to me. His lax treatment and comments about marijuana have been obvious. It reverses 20 years, almost, of hostility to drugs.”

He issued the following warning: “If we go back into this path, we’re going to regret it…. Lives will be impacted, families will be broken up, children will be damaged… and people may be psychologically impacted the rest of their lives with marijuana.” Those who think Sessions will tread lightly on legal states are likely to be disappointed. At the confirmation hearings, he particularly directed invective at Colorado, which he described as “one of the leading states that started the movement to suggest that marijuana is not dangerous.” According to Sessions: “You can see the accidents, traffic deaths related to marijuana, a 20% jump…. You’ve got huge increases in marijuana-related emergency-room visits. This is as obvious as night following day.” He even posed the question: “Is there any sense that Colorado might reevaluate what
they’ve done?”

Which brings us back to Sessions’ rejoinder regarding federal law at January’s hearings. By putting the onus on Congress to update cannabis laws, he proved to be no more or less radical or inflexible than Obama’s first AG, Eric Holder, who, when asked by inquiring senators during his 2009 confirmation hearings about the ever-increasing number of states with medical cannabis laws, also chose to punt the issue to Congress.

The soon-to-be-announced nominees to head the DEA and Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), who Sessions will have a huge hand in choosing, will reveal more information about a Trump/Sessions national cannabis policy. At press time, Acting DEA Administrator Chuck Rosenberg had been retained by the Trump White House, but Drug Czar Michael Botticelli was out, replaced by Acting Drug Czar Kemp Chester. The Trump administration has other crucially important personnel decisions pending that will directly impact federal cannabis policy, including installing the heads of NIDA, the FDA and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

Interestingly, a big difference between the national cannabis policies of Obama and Holder compared to those expected from Trump and his Cabinet is that in 2009, no state had yet created a regulated market for medical cannabis. Soon after Obama took office, the state legislatures of New Mexico and, more importantly, Colorado effectively ended medical cannabis prohibition by passing legislation that created licensed, regulated and taxed cannabis for patients who possessed a physician’s recommendation.

Twenty-nine states have now passed legislation or voter initiatives allowing medical access to cannabis; 16 states and the District of Columbia have decriminalized adult possession; and, most significantly, eight states have legalized cannabis outright, to be sold and taxed similarly to alcohol and tobacco products. Trump and Sessions are inheriting an entirely different and more diffused federal cannabis policy that, under Obama and AG Holder (and later, AG Lynch), allowed states and municipalities to collect well over a billion dollars annually in cannabis-related licenses, fees and taxes.

If Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions want to return the federal government to recklessly enforced and unpopular anti-cannabis policies (according to recent surveys, 80% of the public supports access to cannabis for medical purposes and 60% support legalization), they will do so in direct opposition to the states that assert their autonomy under federalism and receive taxes and other revenue from marijuana commerce popularly approved either by voters or elected policymakers. If the old saying is true that “personnel equates to policy,” Jeff Sessions will soon provide the first real indication of whether the Feds’ long-failed cannabis prohibition policy has, in fact, ended in America—or if he will re-embrace Reefer Madness.

To help lobby the Trump administration, Congress, and Jeff Sessions in favor of allowing states to continue leading the way on marijuana legalization, contact your elected members of Congress and the Senate to inform them of your strong support for ending federal cannabis prohibition, and for allowing states continued autonomy to legalize and tax cannabis. And join and support cannabis law reform organizations such as NORML, DPA, NCIA, MPP, ASA and SSDP.


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