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Jeff Sessions Is Rip Van Winkle on Drug Policy

Lost in the brouhaha about whether Attorney General Jeff Sessions lied to Congress about his contacts with Russian officials is an appropriate consideration of the pernicious influence he could have on policy toward illegal drugs. At a time when America seems poised to adopt a more enlightened policy on that issue, Sessions could set back progress at least a generation.

Especially when it comes to policy regarding marijuana, Sessions emulates Rip Van Winkle. He apparently went to sleep shortly after Richard Nixon declared a “war” on illegal drugs in 1971 and just recently awakened from his slumber. There is little evidence that Sessions understands what havoc the war on drugs has wrought both domestically and internationally since Nixon issued his declaration.   

Instead, the attorney general regurgitates simplistic clichés right out of the 1970s and 1980s about marijuana use. “I don’t think America is going to be a better place when people of all ages, and particularly young people, are smoking pot,” Sessions told reporters on February 26, claiming that “we’re seeing real violence” around the trade. During a Senate hearing in 2016, he vehemently condemned pot use and wanted the federal government to send a message to the American people that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.” That statement ignored abundant evidence that millions of people from all walks of life use the drug either medically or recreationally. Chastising the Obama administration for a supposedly lax stance on the issue, Sessions asserted that “we need grown-ups in Washington to say marijuana is not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized.”

Amazingly, he has escalated such inflammatory and bizarre rhetoric. Speaking at a gathering in Richmond, Virginia on March 15, Sessions equated marijuana use to heroin addiction. Either one, he contended, was a “life-wrecking dependency [1],” adding that marijuana was “only slightly less awful.” He reserved special contempt for those who argue (with growing evidence) that marijuana has been useful in weaning opiate addicts off of those harder drugs.


Such comments confirm that critics may be right when they label him a “drug war dinosaur.” He seems either oblivious or scornful about the trend in public opinion regarding marijuana.  Multiple polls indicate a growing majority in favor of legalizing the drug not only for medical purposes, but also for recreational use. And that grassroots sentiment has resulted in major legislative changes at the state and local levels. Over the past two decades, 28 states have legalized medical marijuana, and in the past few years, eight states (including most recently, large states such as California and Massachusetts) have legalized recreational marijuana.   Most recently, a February survey from Quinnipiac University confirmed that 71 percent of American voters, including a majority of Republicans, want the federal government to respect state marijuana laws instead of overriding them with federal enforcement measures.

Despite being a conservative Republican who touts the importance of states’ rights, Sessions is making ominous statements about running roughshod over the wishes of states that have embraced marijuana legalization. Since taking office, he has on several occasions emphasized that marijuana remains illegal under federal law and that he fully intends to enforce that statute vigorously. Aside from the hypocrisy on his part, such a move would create a nasty showdown between federal and state authorities.

Unfortunately, Sessions’ retrograde views are apparently already having a poisonous influence on the Trump administration. During the campaign, Trump on several occasions promised to “leave it up to the states” regarding marijuana. That certainly implied a respect for the laws of states that had legalized even recreational marijuana. Now, however, there are signs the administration is retreating from that position. Press spokesman Sean Spicer recently stated that states that have legalized recreational marijuana will see not just enforcement, but “greater enforcement” of federal prohibition laws, and that the Justice Department (i.e., Sessions) would make the decisions about appropriate steps.

Continued, much less intensified, enforcement of marijuana prohibition would be a tragedy. The drug war has created more than enough societal disasters, both domestically and internationally, since Nixon launched that initiative. Millions of Americans have had their lives disrupted and acquired the stigma of a criminal record for doing nothing more than choosing to use a drug that politicians arbitrarily made illicit.  


To state the obvious, having a criminal record does not help one’s prospects for getting a job and all the benefits that tend to flow from stable employment at a good wage. For those who have been sentenced to prison terms for possession or trafficking, the consequences are even worse. That action pulls breadwinners out of the home, causing families to be shattered, thereby producing an assortment of social pathologies.

Perhaps worst of all, drug prohibition has filled the coffers of violent criminal organizations.  Making a drug illegal causes the retail price to soar, creating a lucrative profit margin for individuals and organizations willing to undertake the risks associated with violating prohibition laws. Not surprisingly, most people willing to do that are prone to violence and have no respect for laws in general. The result has been horrifying levels of carnage, both in American communities where the drugs are sold and in countries that are the source of the product. The latter turmoil has been especially pronounced in America’s southern neighbor, Mexico, where nearly 100,000 people have died [2] in the fighting over the past decade.

Incurring such results is bad enough in a futile attempt to enforce laws against cocaine, heroin, and other hard drugs. It is reprehensible to do so with a popular, mild drug such as marijuana.  Unfortunately, Jeff Sessions seems clueless about the negative consequences of drug prohibition. “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,” Sessions recently informed reporters. That perverse situation, however, is the result of marijuana prohibition, not mere commerce in marijuana (or any other drug, for that matter). When marijuana is legal, collection of such debts most certainly can be enforced in a court of law, rather than through gunfire, and since legitimate businesses instead of criminal enterprises would dominate the trade, they would have every incentive to do so.

Jeff Sessions was a most unfortunate choice for U.S. attorney general. Rather than letting this modern-day Rip Van Winkle ignore the multitude of negative consequences that the drug war has caused over the past four and a half decades and launch a new, destructive crusade against marijuana, including in states that have legalized the drug, President Trump should keep his campaign promise to let the states decide policy. Above all, he needs to rein in Jeff Sessions before he does irreversible damage.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is the author of 10 books, including two on drug policy.  He is also the contributing editor of 10 books, and the author of more than 650 articles.

57 Comments (Open | Close)

57 Comments To "Jeff Sessions Is Rip Van Winkle on Drug Policy"

#1 Comment By redfish On April 20, 2017 @ 3:03 pm

I agree with some of the above editorial, but I think the relationship the author draws between cannabis prohibition and drug violence is greatly oversimplified.

He appears to at least acknowledge that the criminal organizations that are profiting from drug trade would exist irrespective of drug laws. This was also true in the case of alcohol prohibition — where all the gangs that existed before Prohibition were making money off of selling booze before it was outlawed, and were only finally dismantled because of law enforcement efforts. At the center of any discussion here needs to be the fact that those criminal elements exist not because of drug laws, because of poverty and corruption — and making marijuana legal will not make them pack up and go home in defeat.

Because prohibition does raise prices and increase profits, it is legitimate to say this might be making them more powerful and harder to fight. But we’ve had cannabis prohibition since the 1930s, so it doesn’t explain the increase in violence over the last few decades. To understand what has been happening we have to look elsewhere. Unfortunately our trade policies with Mexico have been a big culprit, and is largely behind the increase in violence there. When big agribusiness moved into Mexico following NAFTA, it put a lot of small farmers out of work, who then flooded into big cities, lowering wages. This economic disruption became a large boost behind the increase of narco-trafficking, as a way for people who lost their livelihoods to make ends meet. It didn’t hurt, either, that the consumer market for cannabis has expanded in the US through political activism and entertainment which has tried to normalize its use and make it mainstream.

Because the author of this editorial works at the Cato Institute, its understandable that he skips all of over these issues, but it needs to be discussed in order to have a realistic undertanding of what will or will not change with more liberal policies.

As for current policies in states like Colorado, its hard to say they’ve been succesful in this regard. There, illegal distributers have managed to sell at lower prices than legal distributers, who have to work with all sorts of regulations, so it has ended up increasing illegal sales rather than decreasing it. Of course what we’re talking about here is only a form of decriminalization, and its possible if cannabis were treated like any other product, and corporations were allowed to produce and sell it on a mass scale like tobacco, it might drive illegal distributers out of business, but that’s not really a discussion we’re even having at this point.

But even still, unless we legalize all drugs, the cartels will just move from marijuana to harder drugs, or even make money selling illegally to those under age.

I personally do agree with some form of decriminalization or legalization, but I think creating a simplistic narrative about the drug war is irresponsible and will lead people to wrong conclusions. I also agree with others here that federal prohibition laws are Unconstitutional. Jeff Sessions is still in a position where he has to decide whether to enforce the law. So I think it would do more good to try to overturn federal prohibition than grouse about its enforcement.

#2 Comment By JonF On April 20, 2017 @ 4:34 pm

Re: Those of us still alive from the 1960 Woodstock generation, or even from the later 70s and 80s, are aware of an unusual property the psychedelic drugs—grass, hashish, LSD, mescaline, peyote, psilocybin mushrooms, etc—had, which is the ability to send the users of them into the realm of spirits.

Nonsense on stilts dancing with fruitcakes atop a clown car! Pot no more sends a person a person into some hypothetical “realm of the spirits” than ibuprofen does!
I can’t even grasp why any remotely orthodox Christian would believe in a “realm of the spirits”. Heaven and hell, maybe purgatory– sure. But “realm of the spirits” is pagan or New Age talk.

#3 Comment By Ben Cone On April 20, 2017 @ 4:56 pm

My god, listening to some of you talk about “dopeheads” is mind boggling. You live in an alternate reality devoid of facts and nothing will ever dig you out.

#4 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 20, 2017 @ 5:01 pm

“Meanwhile education, knowledge, open communication and treatment/support are all much more effective than what illegality, prison and the lifelong Scarlet Letter ‘D’ does for drug users and society as a whole.”

Whoa and and whoa . . .

I am unclear why I need to pay for your enjoyment of what you claim is harmless.

Here’s an idea — don’t engage in anything that warps the one’s mental faculties. An by all means pay for your own treatment.

#5 Comment By Jeff K On April 20, 2017 @ 10:47 pm

I was reading all comments, and considered preparing a fact-based rebuttal to all of those advocating the continued criminalization of marijuana use.

But then Ben Cone put it perfectly: ‘My god, listening to some of you talk about “dopeheads” is mind boggling. You live in an alternate reality devoid of facts and nothing will ever dig you out.’.

That boils it down to the essence of the discussion and political situation. Way too many have bought into the ‘War on Drugs’ propaganda. And 99% of those will probably reject all facts that supports rational analysis which clearly indicates legalization and taxation of marijuana is the correct path.

So…. If a very vocal and active minority continually refuses to follow the rational path, then best to let rational thought and political processes naturally crush them.

What is the saying? Nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come. And it is long past time.

#6 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 23, 2017 @ 4:22 pm

“That boils it down to the essence of the discussion and political situation. Way too many have bought into the ‘War on Drugs’ propaganda.”

I guess one can proceed to to argue based on ignoring the actual content of the discussion by those who oppose the use of mind altering/impairing substances. Whether there was a war on drugs isn’t really a position. The position I hold rests on the effects of such substance use.

One can claim that advocates are on the right side of history which is the implication here. It’s time has come and so it must be. And based on that ethos, anyone opposed must be dimwitted, out of touch or out and out lunatics. While opinions of my actual state of mind vary one will have to do more than cite public opinion, note the “good people” who so indulge or dance on treatises of the economic benefits or spin social constructs about high crime rates.

“So…. If a very vocal and active minority continually refuses to follow the rational path, then best to let rational thought and political processes naturally crush them.”

The rational paths of history;

Needless Invasions

any number of glorious revolutions to social benefit and nirvana to follow (I exaggerate I know).

There’s an endless list of rationalism as you base it — popular opinion, that have devastated entire countries. I think you’d be better served by addressing the issues. Speaking of which,

I make no claims of virtue to christian faith and practice. Nor have I or anyone else, that I have read contended that any particular faith and practice be forced on anyone. In fact, the refrain is peculiar because the country as it foundation presses against any such practice. Even among church gong people, they have for the most part left alone hos who rejected such ideas.

The idea that the alternative to not engaging in altered or impaired states of brain function must now accept Christ is not a mandate, or call by any commenter, unless I missed something.

Believe what you want, but the data strongly suggests that the costs of marijuana far exceed the societal benefits, in multiple areas. And if not for the fallout among society in general — most people wouldn’t care – Puritan or pagan.

But fallout there is.
As I have no doubt that the green dust particles I have been wiping off my car the past couple of weeks is testament of —

kidding kind of.

#7 Comment By Dave On April 20, 2018 @ 4:18 pm

Although I consider myself a conservative, I keep picturing Sessions flying off the handle and ranting about “the hippies” and “the negroes.”