When it comes to legalized marijuana, what exactly is U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions trying to do?
What, precisely, is his plan?
On Thursday (Jan. 4), Sessions rescinded Obama-era Justice Department legal marijuana policies, granting greater discretion to federal prosecutors to pursue pot cases in their jurisdictions. In the process, the Attorney General sent shock waves through states’ legal marijuana industries.
The orders left plenty of people grasping for answers. In the Evergreen State, the reaction to Sessions’ announcement has been a fairly predictable, a bipartisan mix of defiance and confusion.
In fact, about the only thing that’s clear at this point it’s that Sessions, and the Trump administration, seem destined to once again end up on the wrong side of history. It’s a place that — on the issue of legalized marijuana, and so many others — Trump and the gang seem strangely comfortable residing.
If we’re lucky? Sessions’ big announcement will backfire spectacularly.
Let’s start in Washington — where citizens voted to legalize recreational marijuana back in 2012, and recreational stores opened in 2014.
“The comments made by Attorney General Sessions … were based on incorrect on information, I would dare say, misguided. It’s my hope we will have an opportunity to learn in greater detail what he has on his mind,” said Republican State Sen. Ann Rivers during a news conference Thursday.
That, of course, is the big question.
For perspective, I reached out to Keegan Hamilton, a former colleague who is now an editor at Vice News in New York. Hamilton’s work focuses on drugs, crime, prisons, immigration and other issues. He’s been covering marijuana-legalization efforts for the better part of the last decade and has written extensively on the subject.
“The folks that I’ve talked to so far make it seem like the average marijuana user probably has nothing to worry about,” said Hamilton, citing statements from U.S. Attorney’s offices across the country where recreational pot has been legalized.
“They make it seem like it’s just going to be business as usual,” Hamilton said. “I tend to believe the U.S. attorneys when they say this doesn’t change much for them.”
He also noted that Sessions’ instructions — emphasizing the use of federal resources to thwart major crimes like money laundering and organized crime — is something most federal prosecutors say they’re already doing.
In other words, while Sessions pitched his directive as a “return to the rule of law” and “a return of trust and local control to federal prosecutors,” it might not materialize into much more than maintaining the status quo.
From there, however, the situation gets dicey, especially considering the exact wording of Sessions’ orders as they relate to money and banking. Hamilton identified potential marijuana investors and business owners as those who likely have the most to fear.
After all, if you’re thinking about putting your money into the marijuana industry, “That’s going to make you pretty nervous,” Hamilton predicted.
This leads us back to the original question: What, exactly, is Sessions’ end game here?
Hamilton said it was impossible to speculate. He wouldn’t attempt to get inside Jeff Sessions’ head, which is probably wise.
Two distinct possibilities seem obvious.
This week either marked the beginning of a Jeff Sessions-led assault on legal marijuana markets so many feared. Or, it was little more than grandstanding, designed to notch a “victory” in the Attorney General’s beloved War on Drugs that, in practice, will do little to thwart states with legalized marijuana markets or spur to action federal prosecutors in places where voter-approved legalization is extremely popular.
For states like Washington, the latter would obviously be the preferred outcome. Fingers crossed.
My hope is this that Sessions’ salvo ignites not a senseless pot crackdown but instead finally galvanizes a bipartisan group of congressional leaders — either in defense of the will of voters or the successful, tax-generating marketplaces that have emerged — to finally move to protect states’ rights to legalize recreational marijuana.
It’s not farfetched.
Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives, introduced a bill to that effect last year. Sessions’ overreach could be just the thing to give such an effort traction.
“Everyone that I've talked to agrees that it is a signal that there should be concern about the future of the marijuana industry,” Hamilton says.
“On the flip side, I think it could be something that causes Congress to finally take some action to protect marijuana businesses. That might not be full legalization, but I could see this leading to the passage of legislation that explicitly blocks the feds from taking action against state-legal operations.”
With all due respect to Mr. Sessions, wouldn’t that be the sweetest irony of all?