John Hudak is senior fellow in governance studies and deputy director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution. He is author of “Marijuana: A Short History.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Thursday that he will rescind a Justice Department memorandum — known as the Cole Memo — that granted protection to state-legal and regulated marijuana companies. In doing so, Sessions has not only brushed aside science, logic and the prevailing public opinion, but he has also contradicted the opinion of the president he serves and his own party’s governing values.
Sessions’s decision empowers U.S. attorneys to begin prosecuting an industry that has complied with state laws and regulations and has, since 2013, been granted an effective waiver from federal intervention. During this time, the legal marijuana industry has become a multibillion-dollar venture, employing tens of thousands of Americans from coast to coast.
This decision to reignite the drug war comes as little surprise. Sessions once said that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.” He has shown a deep ignorance of the realities of the drug war, which has been ineffective and costly and has disproportionately affected minority communities. And he has committed to numerous claims that have been dispelled by science, such as cannabis’s gateway effect and the idea that marijuana is “only slightly less awful” than heroin.
Over the past five years, eight states and the District have affirmed cannabis reform in statewide votes, reflecting this public approval. In 2012, Colorado and Washington state voters approved reform with 55 percent of the vote. In 2014, 56 percent of Oregonians, 53 percent of Alaskans and 65 percent of D.C. residents approved reform. And in November 2016, voters in California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada approved reform.
In fact, when the first states legalized in 2012, about 50 percent of Americans supported adult-use cannabis reform. Since states began to experiment with this policy, support has grown significantly — up 14 percentage points nationwide. Cannabis reform is now supported by a majority of Democrats, independents and Republicans. Governors — including Democrats, Republicans and independents — in the states that have legalized have told the federal government to stay away because their systems are working well and reflect the will of their citizens.
Even the president has suggested that he disagrees with a policy like this. During the presidential campaign, candidate Donald Trump mentioned numerous times that he supported a states’ rights approach to adult-use cannabis. He did not say he supported federal intervention, an activist attorney general or a reigniting of the drug war. He said he supported states’ rights on the issue.
So it seems that Sessions, who has spent a career as a drug warrior — putting people in jail on drug charges as a state and federal law enforcement official and voting in favor of harsh drug policies as a U.S. senator — is acting on his own accord with this policy reversal. But at the same time, Sessions has promoted a traditional, conservative ideology that opposes unchecked federal intervention, champions states’ rights and espouses free-market economics.
In many ways, the Cole Memo endorses all three tenets of this ideology. It stopped U.S. attorneys from using the might of the federal government to prosecute state-compliant marijuana operators. It did not force cannabis reform on states, instead allowing them to decide for themselves. It allowed an industry that operated in the shadows to come into the sunlight and function relatively freely to create jobs, boost investment, generate profits and grow. Ultimately, it seems, the drug warrior in Sessions undermined his other values.
There is no doubt that Sessions is perfectly within his power to rescind the Cole Memo. The Controlled Substances Act — the federal law declaring cannabis to be illegal — is crystal clear. But something else is clear, too: Sessions’s decision contradicts the president, the will of the public and much of his own ideology.