Letters sent by the current Attorney General hint of upcoming federal action against state’s that have already legalized it, but a marijuana policy expert says Sessions may face resistance on multiple fronts
STEPHEN JANIS: Hello. This is Stephen Janis. I’m reporting for The Real News Network in Baltimore, Maryland. One of the many governing trends that has emerged from the Trump administration thus far is contravening progress. No where is that more apparent than in drug policy. Attorney General Jeff Sessions not only wants to reignite the war on drugs, but he also wants to turn back the clock on marijuana legalization. Several weeks ago, he sent a threatening letter to the state of Washington, one of seven states that legalized pot for recreational use so far and publicly he has equated marijuana with heroin. It is a public stance that is both singular and troubling. JEFF SESSIONS: I reject the idea that we’re going to be better placed if we have more marijuana and you can just go down to the corner grocery store and get it. Give me a break. This is high purity THC content marijuana. It’s not a healthy substance particularly for young people. I’m astonished to hear people suggest we can solve our heroin crisis, have you heard this, by having more marijuana. Now how stupid is that? STEPHEN JANIS: But what can states do and how far will Sessions and the Justice Department go to prevent states from honoring the will of their voters? To answer these questions, I am joined by Morgan Fox, Communications Director for the Marijuana Policy Project, a DC based advocacy group that advocates for reasonable pot laws across the country. Morgan, than you so much for joining us. I appreciate it. MORGAN FOX: Thanks for having. STEPHEN JANIS: Early this month, Jeff Sessions sent a letter to Washington state that some see as a threat. Was it meant to send a message and was it the opening salvo in more concrete legal action? What do you think? MORGAN FOX: Well it remains to be seen. These letters were sent to the governors of Washington and Oregon as well as Colorado. Apparently they were meant to suggest that these states were not effectively doing what they said that they were going to do to be able to survive and continue their programs under the Cole Memo from 2013. A lot of these things are things that no state can completely eliminate, such as completely eliminating use by minors, completely eliminating interstate trafficking. The whole point of the Cole memo was to make sure that these legalization systems did not add to these problems. It did not require the states to completely eliminate them, and so this language coming from Sessions and the DOJ is a little bit alarming because it’s sort of raising the bar to an unrealistic expectation. STEPHEN JANIS: Do you think Sessions is really prepared to take legal action? Going into Washington state or California? If so, how can the states fight back if he decides to start prosecuting people or raiding dispensaries? MORGAN FOX: I think that remains to be seen. Part of it depends on whether or not sessions will listen to the DOJ marijuana policy task force that recommended that the policy as it is stays in place and that the DOJ continues to do research about this. Whether or not he listens to that recommendation remains to be seen. But if he does decide to start going after legal states, he would have the ability to do so under federal law. What form that would take I think is up in the air. By sending in SWAT teams to raid legal businesses and shut down these systems, which would basically just hand the marijuana market right back to the drug cartels, I think would not only be insanely costly for the DOJ in terms of enforcement, but it would also be really costly politically because the Trump administration has been touting itself as pro-business and anti-cartel and shutting down these businesses would be the exact opposite of that. But there are also a bunch of other things that they could do as well, like sending threatening letters to landlords who are renting to these various facilities, trying to go after ancillary businesses, basically just making it very, very difficult for anybody to do business in the cannabis space, which could have a huge chilling effect going forward. STEPHEN JANIS: Well you know Sessions equates marijuana with heroin. He’s said that publicly. Can you just respond to that because there’s certain things that come out of the Trump administration that just aren’t rational. I just want to hear what you have to say about that, sort of equating those two drugs. MORGAN FOX: Well marijuana is one of the safest pharmaceutical substances known to man and it’s far safer than heroin, particularly street heroin. No one has ever died of an overdose of marijuana, so equating these two substances in terms of relative harms is just ridiculous. Not to mention the fact that more and more data is showing that having access to legal cannabis, whether it be in legal states or in medical states, has a positive impact on opiate addiction, including decreased rates of fatal overdoses as well as people weaning themselves off of opiates that are prescribed to them. Not addressing that is a serious problem if the administration is serious about fighting opiates. STEPHEN JANIS: Well I was going to say, I was going to ask you about that, because there’s been this mythology of legalization, but truly in some of these states they’ve seen reductions right? In overdoses and in alcohol use amongst teens? There’s been a lot of sort of positive statistical feedback about states that legalize, correct? MORGAN FOX: Absolutely. Medical marijuana states tend to see up to a 25% drop in fatal opiate overdoses after the institution of their medical plans. In those states we also see a concordant drop in spending on Medicaid for opiates. This is not only saving people’s lives but it’s saving the state money. STEPHEN JANIS: What other aspects of the effects of legalization can you discuss that the narrative of the anti-legalization proponents use? Is there other things that they’re trying to, people like Sessions are trying to force upon the public that are just pure mythology, that doesn’t make any sense and doesn’t sort of correlate with the data? MORGAN FOX: Well the substance of a lot of the letters that were sent to these governors was based on reports from law enforcement groups known as high intensity drug trafficking areas. They have an incentive to keep marijuana illegal and since Colorado made marijuana legal, they have consistently put out reports that overstate the dangers and harms to public health while not discussing at all any of the social, economic and cultural benefits to making marijuana legal. Primarily they focus on increases in car accidents and fatal crashes in some of these states, but there’s absolutely nothing that can directly tie marijuana to these. Such things are affected by a number of different factors. There’s actually no proof that shows that marijuana leads to any of these things. In addition, we’ve seen teen use rates stay the same or go down in the legalization states as well as in medical states. Most of these arguments are really just, they’re ignoring all of the positive benefits and really trying to make connections where those connections aren’t. It appears as if Sessions is relying almost entirely on those reports and is biased against listening to any of the real data that’s coming out, that’s being analyzed by third party independent groups with no stake in the game. Until he does so, I think we’re going to continue to see him try to poke and prod and find ways to shut these states down. Hopefully short of massive raids, but I think we’re going to continue to see movement in that direction, unless the presidency reins him in. Trump has said several times that he thinks that marijuana should be a states issue. Hopefully he’ll stick to that campaign promise and realize that marijuana legalization is supported by a majority of Americans and trying to crack down on it now would be breaking his campaign promises, would make him even more unpopular and would do the exact opposite of what he’s trying to do in terms of criminal justice policy. STEPHEN JANIS: Yeah, that’s interesting because one of the biggest challenges facing legitimate businesses and one place where the feds could crack down has been where to put their cash, right? They’re kind of locked out of the legitimate banking system. What’s going on with that? Has there been any progress on that front? Or is that a place where the DOJ might try to take advantage of the law? MORGAN FOX: Well, we would actually need to change federal law in order to allow banks to really completely legally do business with the cannabis industry. A lot of banks are taking the chance and there are also smaller groups like credit unions and state level banks that aren’t FDIC certified that don’t have to worry about federal penalties. In terms of what the Department of Justice could do, it’s conceivable that they could bring money laundering charges against them. But we really haven’t seen that yet. The banking industry itself is actually looking for more guidance because they want to be able to do business with these organizations, but because larger institutions have more to lose, they tend not to risk it. STEPHEN JANIS: Well Sessions has also consented to allow the DOJ to prosecute medical marijuana use. But so far the Senate has kind of balked. What’s the status of that and will the Senate back down? What do you think is going to happen there? MORGAN FOX: Well as of right now, there’s still a law on the books stating that the DOJ cannot spend any money going after state legal medical marijuana patients and providers. Unfortunately that expires on September 30th. Unless Congress includes a similar rider which recently passed the Senate Appropriations Committee with flying colors, unless they include that in the final budget and it’s signed off on, those protections will expire, which means that there will no longer be any legal protection for medical marijuana patients and providers in states where it’s legal and it will be left entirely to the Department of Justice whether or not those groups or individuals are prosecuted, which is why it’s really important to contact your lawmakers and tell them to support this amendment to the budget. STEPHEN JANIS: Because there’s a lot of implications. There are what? Two dozen states that have legalized it for medical use, correct? Something around 23 or 4? MORGAN FOX: 29 plus DC, Guam and Puerto Rico. STEPHEN JANIS: We’ve seen a wave of legalization across the country. What are the prospects now with Sessions looming over everything? Which states might be next? Is there still momentum to legalize marijuana and where do you see it headed in the future, given these conflicts that haven’t been resolved? MORGAN FOX: Well this has traditionally been an area where the states really make most of the progress. Up until very recently, we had very little traction with Congress and states were pushing forward with medical marijuana programs despite raids taking place under Bush, despite raids taking place under Obama. The states keep moving forward with this and I think that it’s going to cause a big showdown at some point between members of Congress that support states’ rights and that support access to medical marijuana and the DOJ, which obviously wants to be able to maintain federal control over as much of a fiefdom as it can. STEPHEN JANIS: Morgan, just tell us a little bit about what your organization is doing in that regard and what do you do to sort of facilitate this or advocate for this? MORGAN FOX: Well MPP is the nation’s oldest and largest marijuana policy reform organization that’s dedicated specifically to lobbying as well as public education. We take part in state level lobbying and ballot initiatives as well as federal lobbying, trying to improve these laws. Currently we’re working very hard with members of Congress to try to include the budget amendment that would prevent the DOJ from cracking down on medical marijuana states. We’re also making outreach to members of the Department of Justice in order to try to get them to maintain the status quo while the rest of the country considers this issue and not waste resources by going after something that the majority of Americans want and that an increasing number of states are agreeing with. STEPHEN JANIS: Well, Morgan Fox from the Marijuana Policy Project, I appreciate you joining us. Thank you for all your insight and you know, keep in touch with us and let us know what goes on. If anything happens in any of these states, okay? MORGAN FOX: Absolutely. Thank you very much for having me. STEPHEN JANIS: Thank you. And this is Stephen Janis reporting for The Real News Network in Baltimore, Maryland.