Donald Trump has done wonders for job creation—in the fact-checking industry.
A little more than 40 days into his first term, the race for the title of “most outrageous lie proffered by a Trump administration official” is a tight one. Tall tales about fake massacres, mythical crowd estimates and phantom voter fraud abound. Seemingly everyone in the White House, from the president himself on down, is guilty of his or her own Pinocchio moment.
This trait for mendacity extends to the Justice Department. (Always a good look.) When not conveniently forgetting when he talked to Russian officials, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is proving himself adept at spreading untruths about cannabis.
On Monday, Feb. 27, Sessions offered up one of law enforcement’s oldest weed-related canards: The notion that legal marijuana sales are somehow associated with an uptick in crime and violence. The master debunkers at Snopes didn’t even have to sweat to disprove this one.
Once more, here’s the nation’s top law enforcement officer.
“I believe [cannabis use is] an unhealthy practice, and current levels of THC in marijuana are very high compared to what they were a few years ago, and we’re seeing real violence around that,” Sessions told reporters. “Experts are telling me there’s more violence around marijuana than one would think and there’s big money involved…. You can’t sue somebody for drug debt; the only way to get your money is through strong-arm tactics, and violence tends to follow that.”
First, let’s point out Sessions’ “expert.” It’s Nebraska attorney general Douglas Peterson, who—along with Scott Pruitt, his former counterpart in Oklahoma, who now serves as EPA administrator—was on the losing end of a lawsuit filed against Colorado, alleging that that state’s recreational marijuana legalization was causing crime throughout the region. Peterson’s argument was so convincing, the Supreme Court refused to hear it. Not only is it a biased source, it’s an unreliable one.
It is true that marijuana grown in Colorado is making its way into neighboring states. This observation is incomplete without one very salient fact: That’s the black-market marijuana trade, which existed before legalization and will exist if legalization goes away tomorrow.
Peterson’s evidence for making his less-than-compelling claim was a lone document produced by the drug cops who work with the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, one of many HIDTAs of federal and local drug cops that exist throughout the country. (Now’s a good time to remember that a HIDTA analyst recently gave a presentation to New Jersey lawmakers that was almost entirely false.)
As Snopes observed, HIDTA did publish a report that noted a spike in crime across all Colorado and in Denver particularly. However, the report also have a disclaimer, in all caps: “THIS IS NOT TO INFER THAT THE DATA IS DUE TO THE LEGALIZATION OF MARIJUANA.” The very source Peterson used to make his case… doesn’t support his case.
Police have been admitting that the crime-cannabis connection simply isn’t there for almost a decade.
In 2009, Los Angeles police Chief Charlie Beck admitted that the “mantra” that marijuana dispensaries, where weed is sold legally, cause crime “doesn’t really bear out…. Banks are more likely to get robbed than medical marijuana dispensaries.” A major study examining more than a decade of crime data published in PLOSone in 2014 also found that the facts “run counter to arguments” like Sessions’s.
Sessions also declared that the only way disputes are settled in the cannabis industry is via the Pablo Escobar school of arbitration. To hold this notion is to live in a world of pure imagination.
Cannabis businesses operate like most any other business—they have lawyers, they have licenses. Even a perfunctory check of civil court records reveal small-claims suits filed—and settled—for “drug debts.” To say that recreational marijuana settles beefs with an offer of “plato o plomo” or something similar is fantastical.
But in this situation, Sessions may have felt he had to tell a wild tale. It’s the only way to distract from the findings that legal marijuana may reduce crime.
A UCLA study in 2011 looked at crime on blocks in Sacramento before and after dispensaries opened for business. The findings suggested that the presence of security guards and video cameras, de rigeur equipment for cannabis outlets, may be a crime deterrent. Another study, conducted by a researcher from the University of North Carolina, found that marijuana legalization led to a decrease in arrests and property crime—in no small part, surely, because there were fewer cannabis busts.
If we’re feeling generous, we could say that Jeff Sessions was simply led astray, that he ate up the bullshit sandwich the Supreme Court spat out. But we expect more from lawyers. We certainly expect more from the attorney general.
Good people don’t listen to Jeff Sessions.