Long before you knew who he was or needed to know anything about the obscure throwback of a lawmaker from the Deep South, whose reward for backing Donald Trump well before it was popular or sensible was to be put in charge of the nation’s law-enforcement apparatus, Jeff Sessions was telling lies about marijuana.
In 2014, the then-Alabama senator had a bee in his hood about food stamp benefits. He had heard that in Colorado and Washington, then the only two states in the U.S. where adults could legally purchase recreational marijuana, it was possible for food-stamps recipients to use their EBT cards to buy weed.
Never mind that it was pure nonsense.
As Snopes found, it is impossible to use an EBT card either at the point of purchase in a dispensary or at a dispensary ATM, just as it’s not possible to buy liquor with an EBT card.
Regardless, there was Sessions on the floor of the Senate, just the same, spouting off about a nonexistent problem in someone else’s state and proposing legislation to block it.
This incident is all but forgotten now, lost in a miasma of racist jokes and “off-color remarks,” patent falsehoods about cannabis and crime, and a bizarre refusal to accept data and scientific opinion while insisting, against all odds, that heroin and marijuana somehow belong in the same category. (We also forget, mercifully, that Sessions declared that marijuana could not be safer than alcohol, as data demonstrates, because Lady Gaga was “addicted” to it.)
But as the nation’s top law enforcement officer continues to act as if we’re still living in the Nancy Reagan 1980s with his “revival of the ‘Just Say No’ Show,” as Reason columnist Jacob Sullum put it, it’s important to ask why—as in why is he doing this?
Why persist in an unpopular lost cause, with a fervor so unyielding it is beyond the edge of reason, to the extent it risks seriously undermining of his own credibility with lawmakers and law-enforcement officers who have already accepted the obvious, becoming easy fodder for late-night television jokes in the process?
There’s a not-so-secret answer to this riddle, and it’s hidden—in plain sight—in the weed food stamps episode.
The obvious and easiest explanation is that Jeff Sessions has always done this. He has always been this way. This is how his world works, and he will be damned if he accepts he is somehow wrong.
This would explain the attorney general’s fatal case of confirmation bias, exemplified in Sessions’ choice to seek counsel on the marijuana question from attorneys general who alleged, without data, that legalization was causing violence in their states—and to parrot it back at any opportunity.
It’s important also to remember that it is not just marijuana Jeff Sessions hates. It’s all drugs.
Drugs. Are. Bad.
In Sessions’s fake apology for being “unfashionable” in his persistence to refuse to tolerate drug use of any kind—as Nancy Reagan exhorted us to do before such policies led to an incarceration rate worse than North Korea’s—he clings to some D.A.R.E.-class-level understanding of the “terrible truth about drugs and addiction.”
We’ve tried this policy before. It’s bad policy. It’s unrealistic, it doesn’t work, it’s expensive and it’s also counter-intuitive. It helps leads to where we are today: a mass embrace of legalized marijuana, something that was by no means a fait accompli less than a decade ago.
This is the reveal.
Jeff Sessions is hanging onto this not because he believes Drug War 1.0 can be revived and won, an argument akin to pushing for the U.S. Navy to readopt wind-powered ships because of how great they were at the time.
He himself has admitted it.
So, here is another theory: He hates drugs because doing so allows people he has never liked to be punished. These people are non-white people.
Such views fit neatly into the grand Republican plan to reclaim the South—the “Southern Strategy,” which, as Ronald Reagan strategist Lee Atwater admitted, is patent, virulent racism by only slightly less obvious means than shouting racial epithets.
The modern drug war began with Richard Nixon’s Controlled Substances Act.
Though other aides later denied it, Nixon’s domestic policy adviser, John Ehrlichman, allegedly admitted to a magazine writer that the War on Drugs was cooked up as a way to punish the American left and marginalize black people.
One look at how the drug war was subsequently prosecuted—and in which neighborhoods, and against whom, and the consequences, including voter disenfranchisement and economic disaster—demonstrates how well it served this strategy.
Before Ronald Reagan told the South that the Voting Rights Act was a “humiliation,” he was cooking up fabulous tales about public-housing complexes with gyms and swimming pools and public-assistance recipients feasting on steaks and driving Cadillacs—the mythical “welfare queens.”
These are the racist dog-whistles that Atwater had the politicians under his sway utter.
Sessions’s odd outburst about EBT-funded marijuana purchases is straight out of Atwater’s playbook. It’s the welfare queen line, with some of the nouns swapped out. Look, Sessions tried to say—people are wasting your hard-earned tax dollars on their drug habits! It’s no stretch to assume the people to whom Sessions is referring are not white people.
Sessions has gone to great lengths to insist that he’s not a racist, that off-color jokes about the Ku Klux Klan being OK people until he heard they smoked weed either didn’t happen or were meant to be jokes.
But he can’t hide from his record, which reveals he believed wholeheartedly Reagan’s line about the shame of the federal government forcing the South to let black people vote. He used his power as a U.S. attorney in Alabama to prosecute community organizers who were registering black people to vote. This turned heads in the 1980s, when people who could remember segregated lunch counters were still voting.
Then-Senator Ted Kennedy declared it was “inconceivable” that Sessions could be a U.S. attorney, let alone a judge. According to then-Ohio Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, Sessions was a nominee of ”marginal qualifications who lacks judicial temperament… A nominee who is hostile, hostile to civil rights organizations and their causes.”
There is another word for someone who is hostile against people who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., and are hostile to causes like desegregated schools, lunch counters and the right to vote.
After this debacle, Sessions laid low for almost two decades. He did very little in the U.S. Senate until Obama’s second term, when he began to speak his outdated piece on weed. Then, all of a sudden, just as blatantly racist alt-righters had their man for president in Donald Trump—a man whose values Lee Atwater would recognize, though he would abhor his countenance—Sessions resurfaced, tripping upward into a position of extreme power.
Back in 2014, conservative TV pundit Bill O’Reilly, a one-time liberal bugaboo all but forgotten in the age of Pepe memes, fake news and Breitbart warmongers now dictating policy in the White House, allowed himself a moment of clarity. When the New York Times used its editorial page to call for the legalization of all drugs, O’Reilly scoffed. This wasn’t about drugs—it was about race, as in racially skewed arrest and incarceration statistics.
This is the argument masterfully made by academics like Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow.
When it wasn’t acceptable to deny black and brown people the right to vote, the right to work or the right to personhood just because they were black, punishing them for drug use was a convenient work-around. When it wasn’t acceptable to use them for slave labor or as grossly underpaid sharecroppers, you could incarcerate them and use them for slave-wage labor while behind bars. Disenfranchised blacks, satisfied whites and elected Republicans. Great success.
O’Reilly could see it.
There is no doubt Jeff Sessions sees it, too. (Klan hoods have eyeholes, after all.)
That he refuses to acknowledge it and uses the bully pulpit of attorney general of the United States, in the era of terrorism, religious discrimination, immigration controls and gun violence to spread disinformation and outdated nonsense about drugs tells you all you need to know.
Every time Jeff Sessions opens his mouth on drugs, he’s using Lee Atwater’s dog whistle.