Crackdown on States With Legal Marijuana Imminent

Crackdown on States With Legal Marijuana Imminent

While President Trump’s Justice Department has so far towed the line on recreational and medical marijuana policies established during the Obama administration, it appears dramatic changes may be coming soon.

In a press conference Wednesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions foreshadowed coming shifts. “We’re looking at that very hard right now,” Sessions said. “It’s my view that the use of marijuana is detrimental, and we should not give encouragement in any way to it, and it represents a federal violation, which is in the law and is subject to being enforced.”

Advocates for common sense drug law reforms were encouraged when Sessions, who has previously asserted that marijuana is as harmful as heroin, appeared to back off promises to go after legal and medical marijuana states earlier this year. "Our policy is the same, really, fundamentally as the (Obama) policy,” Sessions declared.

But in May, Mr. Sessions directed federal prosecutors to pursue the harshest possible sentences for drug convictions, undoing reforms enacted during the Obama administration, and auguring a future crackdown. The move met broad bipartisan approbation.

“Mandatory minimum sentences have unfairly and disproportionately incarcerated too many minorities for too long,” Republican Senator Paul said in a statement following the May sentencing announcement. “Attorney General Sessions’ new policy will accentuate that injustice.”

From across the aisle, “the policy announced today is not tough on crime. It is dumb on crime,” criticized former Attorney General Eric Holder, who oversaw the reforms enacted during the Obama administration. “It is an ideologically motivated, cookie-cutter approach that has only been proven to generate unfairly long sentences that are often applied indiscriminately and do little to achieve long-term public safety.”

The tough-on-drugs-and-crime views espoused by Mr. Sessions largely hew to those laid out by President Trump during his campaign, and since taking office. President Trump laid bare his grim view of crime and society in contemporary America in his inaugural address, decrying an era of “American Carnage” and promising a return to law and order.

Like President Trump, Mr. Sessions has directly tied the uptick in violent crime in some American cities to drugs. “The murder rate has surged 10 percent nationwide, the largest increase in murder since 1968,” Sessions said in a speech introducing the new sentencing guidelines this May. “We know that drugs and crime go hand in hand in hand. They just do.”

Crime Rates Remain Largely Unchanged Since Individual State Legalizations

Outside experts dispute Mr. Sessions’ claims. A report issued by the New York University School of Law Brennan Center found that overall levels of crime remained largely unchanged in 2016. According to the report, marginal increases in crime rates were driven by highly localized events in three cities: Chicago, Baltimore and Washington D.C.

“This analysis finds that Americans are safer today than they have been at almost any time in the past 25 years.” The report further notes that while “Violent crime rates rose slightly. The 4.2 percent increase was driven by Chicago (16.5 percent) and Baltimore (18.6 percent). Violent crime still remains near the bottom of the nation’s 30-year downward trend.”

Further contradicting Mr. Session’s dire warnings of a drug-fueled crime wave, the Brennan Center’s preliminary 2017 report shows across the board decreases in crime in 2017. Among the report’s findings:

- The overall crime rate in 2017 is projected to decrease slightly, by 1.8 percent. If this estimate holds, 2017 will have the second-lowest crime rate since 1990.
- The violent crime rate is projected to decrease slightly, by 0.6 percent, essentially remaining stable.
- The 2017 murder rate is projected to be 2.5 percent lower than last year.

Any changes to DOJ policy will have to contend with a growing number of states that have elected to legalize marijuana in some form. By June of next year, eight states and the District of Columbia will have legalized recreational marijuana use, while medical marijuana will be legal in 29 states.

Because Federal law still classifies marijuana as a schedule II drug with no known medical value — let alone recreational use — states legalizing it have always operated in a legal limbo of sorts. Mr. Sessions’ hints at a changes coming from the federal level are causing further headaches in state capitols.

Up to now, states have looked to the “Cole Memo” for guidance. Issued by former President Obama’s Deputy Attorney General James Cole, the memo laid out a basic framework for federal-state cooperation in terms of individual states that have legalized marijuana.

The priorities it laid it were as follows:

- Preventing the distribution of marijuana to minors
- Preventing revenue from the sale of marijuana from going to criminal enterprises, gangs, and cartels
- Preventing the diversion of marijuana from states where it is legal under state law in some form to other states
- Preventing state-authorized marijuana activities from being used as a cover or pretext for the trafficking of other illegal drugs or illegal activity

California State officials, preparing for their January 1st legalization date, have expressed concern that a move away from the Cole Memo guidelines would introduce more uncertainty to an already ambiguous legal area. “We’ve certainly tried to extend our intent that we want to work with the administration in good faith,” California State Treasurer John Chiang explained to McClatchy. According to Chiang, however, officials have so far refused to offer any guidance on where Justice Department policy is heading.

Photo credit: Flickr