California had its mellow harshed a bit last week when, just days after cannabis became legal for recreational users, U.S. Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions announced he was rescinding Obama-era Department of Justice protections against federal prosecutions of people operating lawfully under state medical marijuana laws.
The news — coupled with the abrupt resignation of the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California Brian Stretch, leaving a vacancy that will now be filled by the Trump Administration — sent some shockwaves through the Emerald Triangle. Think about it: If you just put your name on a whole bunch of state and county lists openly admitting to conspiring to violate the federal Controlled Substances Act, you'd probably feel pretty squirrely, too.
It's hard to know what exactly to make of this move from Sessions. It's hardly surprising, given his hardline approach to crime in general and marijuana in particular. After all, this is a guy who has said in the last couple of years that "good people don't smoke marijuana" and that cannabis is only "slightly less awful" than heroin. The man has not been shy about expressing his views and, since taking office, has even openly lobbied Congress to roll back restrictions requiring that the Justice Department not spend federal funds chasing after people operating in compliance with local marijuana laws.
But Sessions' endgame here is unclear. If he wants to go full scorched earth, he could theoretically go after government officials in California and elsewhere who have worked to license, promote and regulate cannabis businesses under the argument that hey are facilitating violations of federal law. But that would be lunacy, a declaration of war from the self-described federalist on the eight states — including some red ones — that have legalized recreational weed. It would leave career bureaucrats of all political orientations facing criminal charges for simply doing their jobs.
On the other end of the spectrum, this could all be much ado about nothing, simply an ideological play that soothes Sessions' Reefer Madness propensities but does little to change the operations of the Department of Justice.
A middle ground seems more likely, though.
There are clearly still lots and lots of marijuana growers and dealers who have taken no steps toward legitimacy, who still operate under the cloak of prohibition, pillage the environment with little regard and ship their harvests over state lines to lucrative markets with harsher pot laws. If Sessions is serious about public safety and protecting children from the devil weed, these are the folks he should go after. Clearly. And while few here on the North Coast might say it out loud, a little federal intervention cracking down on those refusing to get on board with regulation and legalization would do a lot to bolster legal markets. It would cut down overproduction of cannabis in the Golden State, driving up prices and pushing people toward regulated, legal markets. Ultimately, this would be good for those who have poured money and effort into getting legit.
But building those types of federal cases is grinding, labor intensive work, often requiring surveillance, informants and large eradication teams. There's a reason many in law enforcement have long felt they were pissing on a bonfire trying to arrest and eradicate marijuana out of the mainstream.
Unfortunately, there's another option. Sessions could instruct his U.S. Attorneys in states with permissive cannabis laws to pick a few examples and prosecute the hell out of them. Not only would this likely mean some good people going to prison, it would also kneecap legal markets. The ensuing panic would disrupt legal markets and regulatory frameworks, sending scores of growers, producers and distributors scurrying back to the hills. In the long run, it would mean more illicit grows, more dewatered streams, more guns, more violence and more contaminated products making it to consumers.
By every measure, this would be disastrous public policy. And most Americans agree, with 64 percent now supporting federal legalization, including a majority — 51 percent — of Republicans, according to a recent Gallup poll. But it unfortunately doesn't matter much what we think. It only matters what a certain Drug War zealot from Alabama thinks. And he somehow believes that the estimated 35 million Americans who regularly use marijuana are bad people and that a drug responsible for zero recorded overdose fatalities last year is "only slightly less awful" than one that caused tens of thousands.
And if you're someone whose name is on a permit or in a state database, that has to be terrifying.
Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.