Attorney General Jeff Sessions's move to enforce federal marijuana laws may be the latest chapter in the arguably failed war on drugs, his critics say. And this time, as his actions may be directed at the marijuana industry, people of color will be disproportionately harmed, some fear.
Sessions's directive makes it easier for American prosecutors to enforce federal marijuana laws in states where the substance is legal, such as California, which just legalized pot for recreational use on Jan. 1.
The Justice Department move drew swift criticism from jurisdictions and has caused confusion among entrepreneurs in the multibillion dollar industry. Lawmakers from both parties have criticized the move as a disregard of states' rights and a waste of DOJ's resources
According to the ACLU, 8 million people were arrested for marijuana-related crimes between 2001 and 2010, and 88 percent of them were for possession. Marijuana use is roughly equal among blacks and whites, but blacks are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.
Sen. Cory Booker (D.-N.J.), who introduced the Marijuana Justice Act to legalize marijuana, believes Sessions's effort could increase those stats.
“Jeff Sessions is reviving a losing war on marijuana that is devastating low-income Americans & our communities of color and dashing our ideals of equal justice. We can't let this happen,” he tweeted.
And Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, said the move is directly tied to the prison industrial complex.
“This is nothing more than an attempt to escalate the GOP's War on Drugs — a racially-fueled crusade to keep Black and brown folks exactly where Jeff Sessions wants them, behind bars,” the activist tweeted.
A Human Rights Watch report found that nearly half of all drug possession arrests in 2015 were for marijuana possession. And while the report also confirmed black and white Americans use marijuana at the same rate, in 2014, black adults accounted for just 14 percent of those who used drugs in the previous year but close to a third of those arrested for drug possession.
Sen. Rand Paul (R.-Ky.), who often discussed the need for criminal justice reform in his 2016 presidential bid, said Sessions needs to put the department's energy elsewhere.
“I continue to believe that this is a states’ rights issue, and the federal government has better things to focus on,” the senator said.
And Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) said the move greatly conflicts with what Sessions told senators before his confirmation.
“This reported action directly contradicts what Attorney General Sessions told me prior to his confirmation. With no prior notice to Congress, the Justice Department has trampled on the will of the voters in CO and other states,” Gardner said. “I am prepared to take all steps necessary, including holding DOJ nominees, until the Attorney General lives up to the commitment he made to me prior to his confirmation.”
The Trump administration is already struggling to gain support with people of color — just 18 percent of nonwhites approve of the president, according to the most recent data from Gallup. And that approval rating may continue to drop if they believe the Justice Department is disproportionately targeting communities that have already been devastated by the war on drugs.
While it's unlikely Sessions will back down from marijuana enforcement, critics will likely continue to try to turn his attention to what they see as more urgent matters. Rep. Ted Lieu (D.-Calif.), a frequent critic of Sessions and the Trump administration, believes that the attorney general's priorities are greatly misguided.