It’s the crackdown that never came, the American War on Drugs’ Phoney War, the interminable lull between the thought and the action, restarted every couple of months with a new scare and attendant round of warnings—all sound, no fury.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions hates drugs, hates legalized marijuana, hates a robust cannabis economy. He hates criminal-justice reform—a central pillar of which is a reassessment of the country’s heretofore carceral approach towards drug use and sales. He hates all of it with an uncommon passion.
We know this. Sessions hasn’t bothered to deny, deflect or even redirect.
So. What does it signify? Where’s the federal cannabis crackdown, the one (dearly departed) Sean Spicer “warned” us about way back in February?
It’s what Trump’s drug-war generals want. And we know Trump listens to his generals (provided they supply him with enough pictures). Believe me.
In the past, we’ve explored various reasons why Sessions’ impending and inevitable crackdown hasn’t come.
Most of them are political. Sessions is too busy with fallout over his damaging and distracting ties to Russia. Sessions can’t muster the necessary political will. Nobody in Congress listens to Jeff Sessions. As Reason.com columnist Jacob Sullum pointed out, even Sessions’ own underlings in the Justice Department aren’t giving him what he wants.
A panel specifically convened by the attorney general to cook up excuses to go after weed came back with nothing. Given the unsubtlest of hints with what was wanted, the Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety came back instead with “no new policy recommendations to advance the attorney general’s aggressively anti-marijuana views,” as the Associated Press reported.
Sessions hasn’t been entirely inactive. The attorney general has sent several somewhat-menacing letters to governors of western states with robust pot economies, highlighting his “serious concerns” and asking for information to prove that “all marijuana activity is compliant with state marijuana laws.”
This is a facade.
It’s no secret that much of the cannabis grown under legal cover in California, Oregon and Washington ends up elsewhere in the United States. Sessions has, under existing Obama-era Justice Department policy, all the reason necessary to enact a subsequent sweeping crackdown.
The Cole Memo, vague and flimsy as it is, states that violations of state law are reason enough to send in the feds. Sessions also demonstrated that alternative facts are plenty sufficient to trigger an all-out offensive when he quoted from a much-maligned, thoroughly exploded HIDTA report—the same source document for the laughable op-ed, mysteriously published in USA Today, that declared, with a straight fact, that legalization had “devastated” Colorado. Booming Denver, with its robust economy and gentrification problem, brought to its knees.
Any interpretation of Sessions’ inaction to this point will be purely speculative.
Easy explanations include the need for Team Trump to work with Congress and the simple fact that cannabis is more popular than Donald Trump. MAGA-hat-wearing congressmen are also pro-weed. Jeff Sessions simply does not have the troops to wage this war. And he’ll never have the hearts and minds.
Not that everything is peaceful.
Sessions has already signaled he’ll undo civil rights reform and review efforts underway at major police departments. He’s also asked U.S. attorneys to start hauling in low-level drug offenders again—something some jurisdictions were happy to do under Obama—although there’s no evidence yet that this direction has been followed.
It could be that someone in the White House has recognized that a cannabis crackdown would be vastly unpopular with a wide swath of Americans. It might not even win Trump any favorable airtime on Fox and Friends, so what’s the point?
But there may be more at play here. A weed crackdown may not be necessary to achieve broader and more sinister aims.
Remember that the War on Drugs is rooted in America’s legacy of racism. (For anyone somehow on the fence or unsure about this: Please re-acquaint yourself with the vast racial biases in arrest and incarceration rates.) At the moment, the Trump administration’s embrace of white supremacists is neither subtle nor covert. After the murderous debacle in Charlottesville, Trump responded with tacit affirmation of white supremacist ideology. He declared that there were good people and bad actors on “both sides.” Trump responded with warm praise for evangelist Jerry Falwell, Jr., who defended the president’s indefensible response to the race-based violence.
Until now, the drug war has served as one of the Republican Party’s many convenient dog-whistles.
If you couldn’t rouse the masses by saying things like “white genocide” aloud, you could talk about welfare queens, crack babies and thugs on the street corner. That filter’s gone now. Trump’s great tool, his Twitter account, has amplified proudly racist voices. Voter-suppression efforts are afoot in states. And torchlight intimidation sparked only tepid condemnation from the White House.
The drug war was always a sort of proxy war—a continuation of the Civil War, really, by other means. Like this: slavery, to sharecropping, to Jim Crow, to the prison-industrial complex.
This conflict is now out in the open like never before. The need for a proxy is gone.