Barring a historic turnaround, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions is set to be confirmed as Donald Trump’s attorney general today and will take over the reins of the Justice Department sometime this month.
Sessions has more support than other Trump Cabinet appointee, such as Betsy DeVos, whose appointment as education secretary advanced on Tuesday after a 50-50 deadlock in the U.S. Senate, with the tie broken by Vice President Mike Pence. DeVos demonstrated so little proficiency in education during her confirmation hearings that two Republican senators—Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska—felt confident enough to vote against her.
In contrast, Sessions, a regressive hard-liner, can count on support within Democratic ranks. On Tuesday morning, the Senate voted to block a planned Democratic filibuster of Sessions appointment, with Democrat Joe Manchin III of West Virginia—the same Joe Manchin whose strategy to combat the country’s rampant opiate epidemic is a “War on Drugs”—flipping to vote with the Republicans.
As of Tuesday night, Democrats had begun a marathon “talk session” to officially protest Sessions’s appointment scheduled to last until Wednesday morning. It’s purely symbolic, as the (Republican-controlled) Senate is so in the bag for Sessions that it won’t allow even certain criticism of the man.
On Tuesday evening, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell used arcane rules to cut off Sen. Elizabeth Warren mid-speech, for the offense of quoting Coretta Scott King’s 1986 accusation that Session had used his position as U.S. attorney to “chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens.”
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) February 8, 2017
So we’re getting Jeff Sessions. What do we get next? A drug warrior into executions, whose next steps are unknown but cause for serious existential concern.
The marijuana industry is hopeful that cannabis has become too big for any one government agency to shut down—but is nonetheless very, very nervous. Sessions himself has said that any nationwide crackdown is a “problem of resources.”
As McClatchy’s DC bureau recounted:
When Sessions was asked at his confirmation hearing whether he would use federal resources to investigate and prosecute sick people who use medical marijuana, he replied: “I won’t commit to never enforcing federal law.”
“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. … We should do our job and enforce laws effectively as we’re able,” Sessions said.
That could be interpreted as a threat, a defiant, “I’d do it if I could.” So will it be allowed? What signals there are are mixed at best.
As a candidate, Donald Trump did give half-hearted support for medical marijuana. But as president, he’s vowed to usher in a new age of “law and order” to end what he sees as an era of “American carnage,” and so far appears ready to do whatever law enforcement tells him on drug policy. And most cops really don’t like weed.
If Sessions and some prominent cops launch an anti-cannabis program, Trump doesn’t appear likely to block it.
Sessions will remain an outspoken opponent of any deviation from the federal government’s total prohibition on legal cannabis. Last year, he infamously uttered the line, “good people don’t smoke marijuana.” He has since insisted that the quote was taken out of context.
Here’s the full quote, from a Senate hearing on drugs in April 2016, in a discussion about Nancy Reagan’s drug prevention programs.
And it led to this decline, to the creating of knowledge that this drug is dangerous, you cannot play with it, it’s just not funny it is not something to laugh about, and trying to send that message with clarity that good people don’t smoke marijuana. And the result of that is, to give that away and make it socially acceptable, creates the demand—the increased demand that results in people being addicted or impacted adversely.
(Of course Sessions would pine for the Reagan era; it was Reagan who tried to appoint Sessions to a seat on the federal bench; the appointment was blocked after an uproar from King and others.)
But his record as attorney general of Alabama—an office he held for only two years—is much, much worse than anything he did or said while a U.S. senator.
As Stanford Law professor John Donohue and Stanford Law student Max Schoening pointed out in a New York Times op-ed, Sessions pursued the death penalty against the insane, the mentally ill and people convicted in trials with blatant racial bias, prosecutorial misconduct and “grossly inadequate” defense counsel.
Sessions was so into death that he supported a short-lived, blatantly unconstitutional effort to punish “drug kingpins” with the death penalty upon a second offense. To qualify for execution, someone need only have led a group of five people or more in selling an illegal drug, including marijuana.
People do change over time. Politicians morph and adapt, if for no other purpose than survival.
But this is Jeff Sessions, and now he’ll have the DEA to play with.