President-elect Donald Trump has nominated Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) to be attorney general of the United States, a move that sent shockwaves through the marijuana legalization movement on Friday.
Marijuana remains illegal under the federal Controlled Substances Act, despite the expansion of recreational programs in Colorado, Washington state, Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C. (The District, however, continues to ban sales, unlike the state programs.) Four new states approved legalization on Election Day, and 29 states in total have legalized marijuana for medical purposes. This movement has only been able to press forward because of guidance urging federal prosecutors to refrain from targeting state-legal marijuana operations.
Under President Obama, the Department of Justice has allowed states to forge their own way on marijuana policy. But that guidance could be reversed when the Trump administration enters the White House. If confirmed, Sessions would sit atop the DOJ, the federal agency that oversees federal prosecutors and enforces federal law on the plant.
He could also use the FBI to crack down on marijuana operations nationwide and use the Drug Enforcement Agency to enforce federal prohibition outside of the jurisdiction of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court ― the court that ruled in August that a federal rider blocks federal officials from prosecuting state-legal marijuana operators and patients. This rider that the 9th Circuit affirmed must be reapproved each year, and Sessions could order DEA enforcement nationwide if it were allowed to expire. He could also file lawsuits that seek to shut down state and local governments enforcing marijuana reforms and administering regulatory programs.
Advocates for drug policy reform have blasted Trump for selecting Sessions.
Trump has said he would respect states’ rights on the issue, but Sessions’ track record of opposing marijuana reform is deeply troubling to people who favor progressive drug laws.
During a Senate hearing earlier this year, Sessions spoke out against marijuana and urged the federal government to send the message to the public that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.” He went on to say that “we need grown-ups in Washington to say marijuana is not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized” and blasted Obama’s stance on the issue. He called the legalization of marijuana “a mistake” last year.
In 1986, when Sessions had been nominated to be a federal judge, a former assistant U.S. attorney accused him of saying that he thought the Ku Klux Klan was acceptable until he found out members smoked marijuana. Sessions allegedly made the statement in connection with the prosecution of a Klan member who had hanged a black man.
Despite Sessions’ retrograde views on the plant, the trend of state-level legalization reflects a broader cultural shift toward acceptance of marijuana, the most commonly used illicit substance in the United States. National support for the legalization of marijuana has risen dramatically in recent years, reaching historic highs in multiple polls just last month. States like Colorado have established regulated marijuana marketplaces, and successes there have debunked some lawmakers’ and law enforcers’ predictions that such polices would result in disaster.
And although many drug policy reformers are disappointed in the Sessions pick, some are holding out hope that they’ll be able persevere should he be confirmed. Trump has publicly stated during the election that he was in favor of letting the states make the decision on the Marijuana use policy. Time will tell!