One week from today, Donald Trump will be sworn in as the nation’s 45th president. He enters the Oval Office with his party in control of the House (241-194) and the Senate (52-48), majorities just five congressmen and two senators short of Congress’s largest Republican majority since the Great Depression, and a vacancy he’ll fill on the Supreme Court to create a 5-4 conservative majority.
Worst of all, he has chosen as his attorney general literally the most hard-line anti-pot senator in America, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, a man whose history of racial animosity derailed his appointment as U.S. Attorney in the 1980s. (Imagine: too racist for the 1980s, when “I speak jive“ and “Long Duk Dong“ were jokes you could get away with in a movie, but just fine for the 2010s.)
Yet, some commentators on marijuana policy think everything will work out just fine.
Some tell us that the marijuana industry is just too big. It’s generating tax revenue and jobs. It’s popular with the people. It’s been 20 years since California’s medical marijuana started; it’s just too late to put the genie back in the bottle.
Sure. And in 1919, there were 1,300 operating breweries in America. They generated a ton of tax revenue—up to 75 percent of New York’s. Saloons were quite popular with the people. Americans had been drinking alcohol on this continent since 1609. And yet, they put that genie back in the bottle for thirteen years, didn’t they?
Some tell us that Donald Trump loves business and money. As the guy who claims he’ll “Make America Great Again,” he’ll want to show growth and productivity gains. He won’t want to shut down an exploding industry.
Sure. But who has more business and money for Trump to love? The $6 billion startup industry headquartered in states that gave 99 votes to Clinton, four to Trump and four to others in the Electoral College? Or their global corporate competitors in the pharmaceutical and alcohol industries worth over $600 billion?
Some tell us that Jeff Sessions as Attorney General will have bigger fish to fry. With the limited resources of the Department of Justice and a mandate to attack immigration violations, Sessions and Trump won’t have the time and resources to go after state-legal marijuana.
Sure. But Sessions and DOJ won’t have to expend much energy at all to drastically alter the marijuana industry. Threatening letters to states, warning of prosecution for officials who license marijuana commerce, don’t take much time and money.
And they don’t need the resources to go after it all. Just a few DEA raids of the largest warehouse grows and storefront shops will put a chill over all of them. Investors thinking of sinking funds into the green rush will start closing their wallets.
Some tell us that the Trump administration won’t waste political capital going after something as popular as marijuana, which now has 60 percent public support for legalization and over 80 percent for medical marijuana.
Sure. Marijuana enjoys widespread support nationally, but Trump’s re-election doesn’t depend on widespread national support. It depends on maintaining his Republican support, and they oppose legalization by 58 percent, with greater opposition in the areas of the South and Midwest that he dominated.
Some tell us not to worry, because Trump said he was 100 percent for medical marijuana and states’ rights for marijuana legalization.
Sure. But Trump also said that there are a lot of problems coming out of Colorado. Also, we tend to think “medical marijuana” means “people can grow cannabis and buy cannabis and use cannabis for their medicine for whatever ailment”, but people like Trump and many Republicans think “medical marijuana” means “OK, you’re on your deathbed with cancer and you’ve tried every other medicine and surgery, so I guess we can let you buy some cannabis tincture at a store.”
Plus, consider that states’ rights work both ways.
Maybe it means California, Oregon and Colorado have the right to legalize marijuana inside their borders. Maybe it means Arizona, Idaho and Kansas have the right to keep it from flowing over theirs. Which side do you think Trump will take—the states that voted for him or the ones that didn’t and won’t in 2020?
Some tell us not to fear Jeff Sessions, because in his confirmation hearings this week, he didn’t commit to a full-scale federal prohibition effort. He gave vague, non-committal answers like his predecessor, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and she didn’t ramp up prosecutions of marijuana states.
Sure. But Loretta Lynch couldn’t ramp up prosecutions because the Rohrabacher Amendment was in place, forbidding DOJ from spending any funds to prosecute state-legal marijuana. That amendment expires in April, and Speaker Ryan has set new rules forbidding budgetary amendments on guns, abortion, LGBT, and marijuana issues, so it can’t be renewed.
Besides, Sessions has been in a job interview this week; of course he’s going to conceal his true nature to avoid losing confirmation votes. A more accurate look at how Sessions may be as Attorney General is found back in April, when he was questioning a witness in a Senate hearing and didn’t have to worry about passing a confirmation hearing:
“This is a huge, huge issue. … [President Obama] thinks it’s a very little problem. But these data show that it is [a huge problem]! … [W]e need a nationwide understanding about the problem. This is very real.”
“Colorado was one of the leading states that started the movement to suggest that marijuana is not dangerous. And we’re going to find it, in my opinion, ripple throughout the entire American citizenry; and we’re going to see more marijuana use, and it’s not going to be good! We’re going to see more other drug use, illegal drug use, also, which is damaging.”
“I mean, we need grown-ups in charge in Washington to say marijuana is not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized, it ought not to be minimized, that it’s, in fact, a very real danger, you can see the accidents, traffic deaths related to marijuana jump 20 percent.”
“These are the kinds of things we’re going to see throughout the country. You’ll see cocaine and heroin increase more than it would have, I think, had we not talked about it.”
“I see the danger and damage it does, and I think the president needs to speak out. I think one of his great failures—it’s been obvious to me—his lax treatment and comments on marijuana.”
“It’s been obvious; it reverses 20 years, almost, of hostility to drugs, begun really when Nancy Reagan started the ‘Just Say No’ program.”
“And if we go back into this path, we’re going to regret it. And you’ve got to have leadership from the top.”
“I can’t tell you how concerning it is for me emotionally and personally to see the possibility that we would reverse the progress that we’ve made and let it slip away from us!”
“Lives will be impacted, families will be broken up, children will be damaged, because of the difficulties their parents have, and people may be psychologically impacted the rest of their lives with marijuana. And if they go on to more serious drugs, which tends to happen, and deny it if you want to, but it tends to happen, there’ll be even greater causes…”
“[T]his drug is dangerous, you cannot play with it, it’s not funny, it’s not something to laugh about, and trying to send that message with clarity that good people don’t smoke marijuana.”
“I believe the Department of Justice needs to be clear and the president really needs to reassert some leadership on this. I think it’s really serious.”
Now maybe when President-elect Trump made the offer to Senator Sessions to become Attorney General, he told Sessions not to do anything about the “dangerous drug” marijuana that leads to damaged children and greater hard drug abuse. Maybe when Sessions accepted the offer, he decided this “really serious” “very real” “huge, huge issue” could be ignored and his Department of Justice shouldn’t be the “grown-ups in charge of Washington” sending the message that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.”
Maybe, and I’ll be thrilled to be wrong if the status quo continues, the marijuana industry grows and nobody gets raided or jailed. But I have always believed this isn’t a War on Drugs, this is a war on culture, and the other side of that culture war is in complete control. Like Bill Maher said, don’t piss off your old underground dealer; you may find you need their services again.
Previously in Radical Rant: My First Time
Click here for all of Russ Belville’s columns.