Attorney General Jeff Sessions broke his self-imposed silence on Monday, mentioning the word “marijuana” for the first time since taking over the federal Justice Department.
And while his plans to stymie marijuana legalization in America are still unclear—if he indeed has any such plans—he did deliver this newsflash: The longtime drug warrior still doesn’t like weed, and may yet do something about it that the cannabis industry will not like one bit.
Donald Trump’s controversial choice to lead American law enforcement, Sessions has become a grand imperial bogeyman for the cannabis industry, which sees him as its most mortal threat. A Sessions-initiated federal crackdown is considered the most imminent danger facing a market that sold nearly $6.7 billion worth of product last year—and the only possible obstacle that could slow down the near-perfect success statewide legalization campaigns have enjoyed over the past few election cycles.
Sessions’ selection has spooked investors and stoked fears of a recession in Colorado. Anxiety reached new heights last week, when Trump press secretary Sean Spicer announced that Sessions would likely apply “greater enforcement” in states that have legalized recreational marijuana.
But this is the first time Sessions has shared his own insight as A.G.
Speaking with reporters on Monday, Sessions repeated the vague-yet-threatening line he uttered during his Senate confirmation hearings—that marijuana is illegal under federal law—and added an alternative fact, the claim that legalization is causing “violence.”
“Most of you probably know I don’t think America is going to be a better place when more people of all ages and particularly young people start smoking pot,” Sessions said. “I believe it’s an unhealthy practice and current levels of THC in marijuana are very high compared to what they were a few years ago.”
“Experts are telling me there’s more violence around marijuana than one would think and there’s big money involved,” he said. “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.”
“I’m definitely not a fan of expanded use of marijuana,” he said. “States, they can pass the laws they choose. I would just say it does remain a violation of federal law to distribute marijuana throughout any place in the United States, whether a state legalizes it or not.”
As for these “experts,” they apparently include Doug Peterson, the attorney general of Nebraska, with whom Sessions met on Monday.
Nebraska and Oklahoma were the two states to attempt to sue Colorado in order to undo marijuana legalization. The lawsuit failed when the Supreme Court refused to hear the case, but Sessions spoke kindly of the effort and is apparently taking counsel from Peterson. The lawsuit’s other architect, former Oklahoma A.G. and current EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, may also be sharing “advice” during Trump Cabinet meetings.
Possibly the most loaded comment Sessions issued Monday was in response to questions about the Cole memo. A non-binding, Obama-era policy that suggests federal law enforcement resources be steered away from legal states and toward illicit marijuana operations that cross state lines or involve violence, the Cole memo is nonetheless the marijuana industry’s best legal defense.
And Sessions indicated he’s still reserving the right to shred it.
“Most states have some limits on it and, already, people are violating those limits,” he said. “We’re going to look at it… and try to adopt responsible policies.”
Parsing Sessions’s words, there’s nothing concrete to freak out about—but there’s also plenty to cause worry, beyond the attorney general hunkering down with lawyers whose failed chess moves he respects for some reason.
Notice that Sessions seemed to suggest that legalization is leading more children to use cannabis.
One of the tenets of the Cole Memo was to reserve the federal sword for situations where kids are involved. There’s no evidence legalization is doing this, but it may not matter. Ditto with the allegation that legalization is causing violence, but that comment is in line with the plan, announced the day he was sworn in, to crack down on drug cartels.
Cartels have very little to do with taxpaying marijuana businesses who join the local Chamber of Commerce and advertise in the newspaper, but Sessions is a guy who hates weed, says legalization is a mistake and has slammed Obama’s hands-off policy—and may also have fabricated an award from the NAACP.
It’s clear he has something planned for cannabis, but we still don’t know what, where or when.
He could just be toying with us and enjoying the hand-wringing every time he says boo—which for now is more than enough to make marijuana types justifiably paranoid.