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Marijuana policy will be much-watched issue with Trump's Attorney General pick

November 23, 2016
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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Advocates along the spectrum of views on drug policy have had predictably varying reactions to President-Elect Donald Trump's decision to nominate Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions as Attorney General. The leading organization combating marijuana legalization is expressing hope that existing federal anti-marijuana law will be enforced in a Trump administration, while the main association supporting legalization fears a return to what it sees as a failed “war on drugs” mentality.

“We've all wondered whether the Trump presidency would be 'states rights' or 'law and order' when it comes to drugs. The Sessions pick makes many of us think it may be the latter,” Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana) co-founder and director Kevin Sabet tells Addiction Professional. “He has been the single biggest opponent to legalization in the U.S. Senate.”

The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) sees Sessions' record as a member of Congress in a different light. “Donald Trump's decision heralds a return to the worst days of the drug war,” DPA senior director of national affairs Bill Piper said in a news release. “Trump promised to 'drain the swamp' but he's gone to the very bottom of the drug war barrel for this pick.”

The DPA statement cites a number of past comments about drug policy from Sessions, who currently sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee. It states that he said at a Senate hearing earlier this year that “good people don't smoke marijuana,” in speaking out against legalization initiatives. The release adds, “He is likely to use his power as attorney general to close down state-legal marijuana and medical marijuana programs.”

Feds' options

While surmising that drug policy likely is not near the top of the president-elect's policy priority list at this point, Sabet says the new Department of Justice leadership in his administration will have several marijuana policy options to consider.

“They could write a letter to governors in legalized states stating that any state-issued licenses regulating marijuana sales is a violation of the Controlled Substances Act, and say they have 90 days to revoke licenses,” Sabet says. “They could issue a new memo to the states that have not implemented sales yet and say that they advise states not to allow for it.”

Sabet's organization calls for a tougher enforcement of existing federal law in the new administration. “I think a clear letter asking states to stand down until Congress changes the law makes the most sense, and I think governors in these states would gladly oblige,” says Sabet. “In fact, most, I think, would welcome such a move.”

Legalization supporters fear a possible return to an enforcement-driven approach to the drug problem, a move that they believe would roll back progress in decriminalizing minor drug offenses. “It is likely that Sessions as Attorney General would push for harsher sentences and increase the prison population,” the DPA news release states.

The National Cannabis Industry Association sounded a more moderate tone than the DPA's in its reaction to the nomination. “Senator Sessions has long advocated for state sovereignty, and we look forward to working with him to ensure that states' rights and voter choices on cannabis are respected,” said association executive director Aaron Smith.