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Opinion Jeff Sessions’s ridiculous anti-drug crusade

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been implementing big changes at the Justice Department. (Video: Thomas Johnson/The Washington Post)

A few days ago, it looked as if the popularity and profitability of marijuana would spare pot reform from the lurching chaos of Donald Trump’s administration. But then Sen. Jeff Sessions — probably the only person on earth who’s nostalgic about Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign — was announced as President-elect Trump’s choice for attorney general.

As my fellow guest blogger Steven Hale wrote on Friday, Sessions’s record and public statements indicate that he’ll be a nightmare for civil liberties. In terms of drug policy, Sessions stands out even in the GOP for his steadfast rejection of scientific evidence.

At a Senate hearing in April, Sessions held forth on the (nonexistent) dangers of legalization. “We need grown-ups in charge in Washington saying marijuana is not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized, it ought to be minimized, that it is in fact a very real danger. You can see the accidents, traffic deaths related to marijuana,” he said. “And you’ll see cocaine and heroin increase more than it would have, I think.”

Renowned scientist Nancy Reagan aside, there is actually no compelling evidence that marijuana is a “gateway” to harder drugs. As Maia Szalavitz has explained, although many people who do heroin or cocaine have tried pot, it’s more a matter of correlation than cause and effect. Citing the National Institute on Drug Abuse statistic that someone who tries marijuana is 104 times more likely to use cocaine, she noted, “Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang members are probably 104 times more likely to have ridden a bicycle as a kid than those who don’t become Hell’s Angels, but that doesn’t mean that riding a two-wheeler is a ‘gateway’ to joining a motorcycle gang. It simply means that most people ride bikes and the kind of people who don’t are highly unlikely to ever ride a motorcycle.”

And there’s not definitive proof that stoned drivers are causing traffic fatalities. Marijuana might impair some motor skills, but unlike alcohol, it doesn’t encourage behaviors such as driving too fast or too aggressively that tend to contribute to fatal crashes. A 2015 study by the U.S. Transportation Department found that once factors like age and alcohol consumption were factored in, THC didn’t appear to play huge role in deadly car accidents.

Sessions has also denounced President Obama for steering America away from the glory days when every state locked people up for a drug that is safer than alcohol. “I think one of [Obama’s] great failures, it’s obvious to me, is his lax treatment in comments on marijuana,” Sessions said at the hearing, The Post reported. “It reverses 20 years almost of hostility to drugs that began really when Nancy Reagan started ‘Just Say No,’ ” Sessions said of the president’s approach to pot.

But won’t Sessions be too busy railing against the NAACP to focus on rolling back drug policy reform? That’s unlikely. “He’s a nightmare for drug policy reform,” Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, an advocacy group that lobbies for drug reform, told the Watch. “He looks to have been one of the worst Republicans in the Senate on issues of marijuana reform, sentencing reform, rolling back the drug war. All of it.”

Because Trump has said that marijuana legalization should be left to the states, people in the industry may have been complacent about a Trump win, but they shouldn’t be. “There are all sorts of ways the federal government can hobble marijuana policy reform in the states,” Nadelmann said. A Sessions-led Justice Department could jettison the Cole memo, a 2013 Justice Department declaration that signaled the federal government wouldn’t crack down on marijuana sellers in states where it is legal. The administration could appoint U.S. attorneys who are against drug reform.

David Friedman, the previous chief executive of the Marijuana Index, doesn’t see the federal government going after legal pot given how popular marijuana is. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t concerns. Sessions is “certainly no friend of the industry,” Friedman told the Watch. The biggest fear he says pot sellers have is that they’ll be “made an example of” by the federal government.

“Asset forfeiture is what scares people the most. Having a federal agency come in, shut you down, take your inventory and freeze all of your cash and put you out of the industry,” Friedman said.

Nadelmann points to other worrisome signs. Both Sheldon Adelson and Mel Sembler, big GOP fundraisers who have thrown around their millions to thwart medical marijuana, are on Trump’s inauguration team.

And Sessions’s appointment signals the crash of bipartisan efforts to reform drug policy and sentencing, Nadelmann says. Republicans have been open to lowering the sentences of nonviolent drug offenders, but “a Sessions nomination suggests that this is not going to meet a friendly reception in a Trump administration.”

“The man has demonstrated a lifetime of drug war extremism and of utter indifference to the racially disproportionate consequences of drug enforcement,” Nadelmann concluded. “He’s shown an extreme insensitivity to the victims of the drug war.”