Attorney General Jeff Sessions had little to celebrate on the annual marijuana holiday this week. President Donald Trump has not said much to back him up on the issue, leaving Sessions as a lone voice in the federal wilderness. He has opined that medical marijuana has been “hyped,” and he doubles down at every available opportunity on beefing up enforcement against the Schedule 1 drug, even though many states and localities have taken off in a completely different direction. With too many balls already in the air, administration officials are positioned to have another one conk them on their collective head.
For one thing, Sessions is simply too late: A number of states have already decided the marijuana question. Any federal move to crack down on recreational users or medical marijuana patients and their suppliers users would be met with a blowback similar to, if not even more vociferous than, the recent grassroots uproar over the effort to repeal Obamacare. It would be very difficult for the Justice Department and the White House to quell the public protests across the political spectrum that would likely ensue.
Moreover, the additional tax revenues flowing into state coffers courtesy of the evil weed in states like Colorado and Washington state cannot be ignored. Sin taxes are ones that state and local politicians and their constituents can embrace. Legal marijuana states could take nearly $700 million in state taxes on retail sales in 2017. If the Trump administration tries to kill off this cash crop, the Justice Department can expect to find itself tied up in lawsuits on multiple fronts.
On the medical side of the ledger, people from suffering from debilitating diseases or chronic conditions can consume the drug in peace and no longer have to worry about arrest when trying to obtain marijuana for themselves or loved ones. Unlike recreational marijuana, medical marijuana has been legalized in every region of the country—as well as in states that Trump carried, including Arkansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Ohio.
Medical marijuana benefits may hold little credence with Sessions, but the impacts of decriminalization on the courts and law enforcement should. Removing cases involving recreational users and low-level dealers from courtroom dockets and police stations frees up judges, attorneys, and police to handle more serious crimes.
Even in states like Texas, where marijuana possession remains illegal, certain municipalities have plowed ahead with new decriminalization efforts. In March, Houston launched a new program: A person apprehended with four ounces or less of pot must relinquish the drug and agree take a four-hour, $150 drug education class within 90 days of the offense.
Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg has calculated that the city has spent more than $250 million over the past decade prosecuting people for minor pot crimes. County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo backed her decision. “What matters most to the people of Houston isn’t somebody with a baggy of marijuana; what matters most to them is what’s going on with burglaries of our residences, burglaries of our vehicles, armed robbery, sexual assaults,” Acevedo said at a press conference. “We are going to focus on being smart on crime, focused on crime.”
Law enforcement officials in neighboring counties dissented from this view, however. Organizations like the National Association of District Attorneys continue to work on coming up with policy positions to harmonize the widely divergent views of its members. If the Justice Department decides to ramp up enforcement, it’s up to the federal officials to enforce federal law, Boulder County, Colorado District Attorney Stan Garnett told The Cannabist. “It’s not going to change how I enforce Colorado law,” he said.
The Trump administration has not revealed any new data to back a crackdown on marijuana. Instead, Sessions sees marijuana legalization as tantamount “to being sold at every corner grocery store.” Federal officials would be better served focusing on the efforts of the recently created President's Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis.
To further complicate matters for Trump and Sessions, 71 percent of Americans are opposed to tinkering with marijuana laws in states where the drug is legal; 65 percent believing that pot is less dangerous than, say, alcohol; and 61 percent support legalization across the board.
Capitol Hill seems in no mood to crack down, either.
It's time that Congress listen to Americans & have a serious conversation about rescheduling marijuana. https://t.co/vAd3A01dUx
— Elizabeth Warren (@elizabethforma) April 20, 2017
Virginia Republican Tom Garrett has introduced a measure in the House that would remove marijuana from the federal schedule of controlled substances. As a commenter on AL.com in the attorney general’s home state of Alabama noted, “Sessions could be the best thing to ever happen to the cannabis law reform movement; some move toward austerity could very well result in the Congress finally simply descheduling (effectively federally legalizing) cannabis altogether.”
The White House has stoked plenty of controversy in its first 100 days, with its attempts to repeal Obamacare, pro-plutocratic tax reform, Russian intrigue, North Korea saber-rattling, and a looming government shutdown, to list just a few percolating issues. Riling up the citizenry and their elected representatives over pot would likely send Trump’s approval ratings plummeting even further.