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Only Congress can keep Jeff Sessions' reefer madness in check

Only Congress can keep Jeff Sessions' reefer madness in check
Craig Burns shops for marijuana for recreational use with the help of budtender Jake Walcher, right, at 420 Central, a dispensary in Santa Ana, Calif. on Jan. 4. (Los Angeles Times)

Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions' decision to withdraw an Obama-era directive discouraging the enforcement of federal marijuana laws in states that have legalized pot shouldn't surprise anyone familiar with Sessions' views on drug laws.

The attorney general has every right to enforce federal drug laws as vigorously as he sees fit. But just because he can doesn't mean he should. The truth is that resuming the discredited war on marijuana would be neither a smart step nor welcome policy, and just the threat of it is a reminder of the shortsightedness of the federal government's approach to drugs.

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The new directive doesn't in itself order stepped-up enforcement, but it gives wide latitude to the 93 U.S. attorneys around the country to determine what resources to devote to enforcing federal marijuana laws. That's not a lot of guidance, and it ensures that enforcement will vary widely even within some states — California, for instance, has four U.S. attorneys. The situation is further muddied by the fact that President Trump fired all of President Obama's U.S. attorneys and has nominated candidates for only 58 of the positions. Interim appointees by Sessions fill many of the other seats.

It’s time to bring our ossified laws over marijuana use into the 21st century.


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The underlying problem is that more than half of the states have legalized marijuana use in some form, putting them in conflict with the federal government, which bars the cultivation, sale and use of the drug. It was almost inevitable — and definitely foreseeable — that a conservative administration would seek to exert federal authority over the issue. Perhaps the silver lining here is that the state actions have forced a showdown that could finally pressure Congress to resolve the issue.

This is a problem only Congress can fix. It's time for lawmakers to relax the laws on marijuana, for both medicinal and recreational use by adults. The nation's history on marijuana laws is framed by racism and over-enforcement in minority communities. Under federal law, pot is still designated (along with heroin) as a Schedule 1 drug, which not only guarantees a thriving black market and overly tough penalties for users, but stifles just the kind of research the nation needs to understand both the benefits and dangers of marijuana use. Sessions has long opposed liberalization of marijuana laws, a position based not on science and research but on retrograde views of the sort spread by "Reefer Madness," the 1936 movie that linked pot smoking to decadent jazz parties and violent crimes.

Today, legalization has strong voter approval. A Gallup poll in October found support at 64% — an all-time high (so to speak) — with 51% of Republicans saying they supported some form of legalization. And many people rely on marijuana to relieve symptoms of chemotherapy, muscle spasms from multiple sclerosis, some forms of anxiety and other medical issues. Making a criminal act of seeking recognized medical relief would be a crime of a different sort.

The nation should not place excessive faith in the benefits of marijuana, nor underplay the potential harms of excessive use, including memory issues and, among those who smoke it, lung troubles. We need tests and standards to tell us whether people are dangerously impaired while driving (no reliable test exists such as those that determine alcohol impairment). Much more study needs to be done of the effects of pot use. But a federal crackdown does nothing positive.

During the campaign, President Trump told voters that marijuana laws "should be up to the states," implying that this was an issue his administration wouldn't wade into. But now the government is doing just that. Instead of making matters worse, Trump could help fix the problem by pushing Congress to pass new laws relaxing federal controls. It's time to bring our ossified laws over marijuana use into the 21st century. Reviving harsh federal laws from a bygone era is not the solution.

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