Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Lost in all the reports of his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee was news that last month U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions asked Congress to give him broad authority to crack down on medical marijuana cultivators and distributors acting in accordance with state laws.
On May 1, Sessions penned a letter to congressional leaders asking them to strike a provision in a spending bill that bars the Department of Justice from using its federal funding to prosecute people operating in compliance with state law. Known as the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment, the check on Justice Department power has been a mainstay in congressional budget bills since first passed in 2014.
“I believe it would be unwise for Congress to restrict discretion of the Department to fund particular prosecutions, particularly in the midst of an historic drug epidemic and potentially long-term uptick in violent crime,” Sessions explained in the letter
It’s interesting to break down Sessions' reason for pushing Congress to change course just one day before a continuing resolution to fund the government through September was to come up for a vote.
While the national violent crime rate has been increasing in recent years — along with urban homicide rates — national rates are about half of what they were 15 years ago, according to research from the nonprofit Pew Research Center. But the FBI reported a 10 percent increase in the national murder rate between 2014 and 2015, and experts expect a similar bump when the complete 2016 numbers are released later this year.
As to the drug epidemic, there’s little question it has reached historic proportions. More than 33,000 people died of opioid overdoses in 2015, which is about equal to the number of national roadway fatalities and, for the first time, more than died from gunshot wounds. (In Humboldt County, we recorded 20 drug-related deaths in 2015.)
But Sessions’ pointing at the “historic drug epidemic” as a reason to crack down on state legal medical marijuana operators seems on shaky ground. A groundbreaking study recently published in the Drug and Alcohol Dependence
journal indicates states with medical marijuana programs are seeing substantially lower rates of opioid addiction and overdose.
The study looked at administrative records of hospital discharges from 27 states, nine of which had legalized medical marijuana, over a 17-year period and found that states with legal access to medical marijuana saw rates of opioid-related hospitalizations drop 23 percent while overdoses fell 17 percent.
But Sessions has made clear he doesn’t buy the research or the premise, saying earlier this year that he was “astonished” to hear people talk of marijuana as a means of addressing the opioid epidemic, opining that heroin users would just be trading one “life-wrecking dependency” for another that’s “only slightly less awful.”
To further buttress his request in the letter, Sessions warns that “drug traffickers” are already operating under “the guise” of state marijuana laws.
“In particular, Cuban, Asian, Caucasian and Eurasian criminal organizations have established operations in state-approved marijuana markets,” Sessions wrote. “For example, just this past month in Colorado, state authorities allege that an individual who held an active Colorado license for operating a medical marijuana business was the ringleader of a criminal organization that also shipped marijuana out of state.”
While the image of “Cuban” and “Eurasian” traffickers pushing weed throughout the continental United States may seem terrifying to our AG, it’s actually a bit of a non sequitur, as Sessions’ specific example illustrates. The amendment — which Congress ultimately passed despite Sessions’ objection — only protects those operating in accordance with state laws. It is against Colorado law for a cannabis operator to transport or distribute across state lines, thus there is nothing in the amendment preventing Sessions’ U.S. Attorneys from indicting and prosecuting the very case he points to as necessitating the change in policy. It's hard to imagine a sitting attorney general would not know this.
It’s unclear why it took so long for Sessions’ May 1 letter to see the light of day, as it was only first reported by the Washington Post
on Tuesday. And remember that President Donald Trump, in a signing note that accompanied the appropriations bill, challenged Congress’ authority to limit the Department of Justice’s discretion.
While it’s hard to know how this will trickle down to the hills and dispensaries of Humboldt County, it seems pretty clear Sessions isn’t inclined to soften his stance on marijuana. And it also looks like the issue is poised to once again be evaluated in September, when Congress will again be tasked with passing a short-term funding resolution to keep government running.