Editorial: Jeff Sessions targeting marijuana, not opioids? That’s crazy.
Late last year, the Centers for Disease Control reported that 2016 had more fatal drug overdoses than any other year inU.S. history — about 63,600 or nearly 175 a day — with two-thirds linked to the opioid epidemic. The San Diego Union-Tribune Editorial Board called then for the Trump administration to do far more to address the crisis, in keeping with Donald Trump’s promises on the campaign trail.
Now Attorney General Jeff Sessions has outlined a new anti-drug strategy — and he seems more worried about marijuana, which kills no one by overdose and far fewer people accidentally than dangerous and deadly opioids. This is the stuff of bad farce.
On Thursday, Sessions gave local U.S. attorneys the discretion to use federal laws to crack down on marijuana as they see fit, including in the eight states like California that have legalized recreational use. He did so by rescinding a 2013 memo issued by the Obama administration’s Justice Department that allowed states to permit recreational marijuana use with certain safeguards. Those included keeping children from having access to pot and minimizing exports of marijuana grown in states where it is legal to states where it is illegal.
With his action, Sessions didn’t just ignore Trump’s repeated promises as a candidate to let states go their own ways on recreational drug use. The attorney general also disregarded the intent of Congress that the feds should butt out, expressed by the passage of budget riders since 2014 forbidding federal interference with state laws permitting medical use of cannabis. Sessions also ignored another issue: the need to wisely use the Justice Department’s limited resources in an era of tight budgets.
The attorney general’s aides couldn’t even explain to reporters whether Sessions’ goal was a return to a full-on federal war on marijuana or just an effort to hurt the momentum building behind the cannabis legalization movement. Starting now, the 94 U.S. Attorney’s Offices nationwide can choose their own paths. That’s extraordinary, and crazy.
Congress must respond to Sessions’ edict by passing another rider that applies to state laws allowing recreational use as well in coming votes on budget and federal spending cap measures. Otherwise, Sessions’ move threatens chaos in California, where recreational marijuana sales began Monday, and in the other states that allow it even though federal banking laws make it dangerously all-cash.
At the state level, another lawsuit and another round of Trump name-calling seem inevitable. But a more constructive approach might be for politicians from Gov. Jerry Brown and Sen. Dianne Feinstein on down to remind the president that Sessions is breaking promises that Trump repeatedly made. Trump is so mercurial that he may welcome a new chance to humiliate Sessions by overruling him. The president has derided Sessions for months over decisions related to special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation of possible ties between Russia and the Trump campaign and White House.
At the local level, U.S. Attorney Adam Braverman is not offering clarity on his intentions. Braverman is a Sessions appointee who was sworn in nearly two months ago and has nearly a decade of experience working as a San Diego federal prosecutor who targeted international drug cartels.
In a statement Braverman sent to NBC San Diego, he said Sessions’ step “returns trust and local control to federal prosecutors,” which could signal a crackdown on recreational marijuana in San Diego — or not.
“The Department of Justice is committed to reducing violent crime and enforcing the laws as enacted by Congress,” Braverman wrote. “The cultivation, distribution, and possession of marijuana has long been and remains a violation of federal law. We will continue to utilize long-established prosecutorial priorities to carry out our mission to combat violent crime, disrupt and dismantle transnational criminal organizations, and stem the rising tide of the drug crisis.”
This statement offers no acknowledgment that Californians, with their decisive vote for Proposition 64 in 2016, want access to cannabis to be legal. Sessions and Braverman need to explain exactly what they hope to accomplish with this new policy — not leave the nation’s largest state in a confused legal limbo.
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