Today, Senator Jefferson Beauregard “Jeff” Sessions III (R-AL) accepted President-Elect Trump’s nomination to become the next Attorney General of the United States, the nation’s top law enforcement official. He’s unapologetically anti-cannabis, and was quoted as saying “Good People Don’t Smoke Marijuana” will that translate into official policy?
Sessions’ impressive resume includes six years as Assistant US Attorney in the Southern District of Alabama (1975-1981), two years as Attorney General of Alabama (1994-1996), and twenty years as a US Senator (1996-2016). With a resume like this, there is no question that Sessions is a qualified and capable nominee for Attorney General.
In 1986, President Reagan nominated Sessions to be a judge on the US District Court for the Southern District of Alabama. Beleaguered by accusations of racism, the US Senate rejected his nomination to become a judge. The testimony that lead to Sessions’s rejection included Thomas Figures, an African-American former Assistant US Attorney, who testified that Sessions called him “boy,” advised him to “be careful what you say to white folks,” and that Sessions thought that the Ku Klux Klan “were OK until I found out they smoked pot.” Sessions said that the comments were a joke and apologized.
As Senator, Sessions has served on the Judiciary Committee, where he helped screen judicial nominees during President Obama’s term. During hearings on Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination, sessions argued against Sotomayor’s reliance on individual experience and empathy to inform her judicial opinions. Sessions famously exclaimed, “empathy for one party is always prejudice against another.” Sessions argued that empathy from a judge is tantamount to partiality, thus robbing the less empathetic party of a fair hearing. Justice Sotomayor’s nomination was approved by the Senate, despite Sessions’ votes against her in both the Judiciary Committee and in the full chamber vote.
Senator Sessions’ views on cannabis are quite clear: he’s against normalization and legalization. In a Senate hearing last April, Sessions spoke of the need for society to spread “knowledge that this drug is dangerous, you cannot play with it, it is not funny, it’s not something to laugh about… and to send that message with clarity that good people don’t smoke marijuana.”
As Attorney General, Sessions will be the head of the US Department of Justice. The DOJ is a monumental federal department with incredible power and reach. Here is a flow chart of the DOJ’s major departments, which include the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the US Marshals Service, Office of the Pardon Attorney, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, & Explosives, Civil Rights Division, and many more.
Once in office, Sessions won’t have carte blanc authority to do anything he wants with these agencies, but he will have a lot of discretion and an army of excellent attorneys at his command. He could set the cannabis movement back years (maybe decades), but doing so could cost the Trump administration a lot of political capital. Additionally, commentators have pointed out that he may have other priorities that will demand his attention.
Trump’s official statements on cannabis hint that his administration will continue the current hands-off policy established under former Attorneys General Loretta Lynch and Eric Holder. These policies, centered on the guidance of the Cole Memos, embolden states to choose cannabis policies for themselves. A heavy-handed federal crack-down on state-law-compliant cannabis businesses would be a major shift and could run afoul of the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment, which prohibits the DOJ from using any federal funds to enforce federal drug laws against state-regulated medical marijuana providers.
His views as a senator may not necessarily become his new policy as attorney general. President-Elect Trump will be the boss, so anyone’s guess at federal cannabis policy at this point is simply that: a guess. We will find out more in the next few months after Senate confirmation hearings for the Trump Administration’s top officials begin and President Trump’s “law and order” priorities are revealed.