Jeff Sessions a ‘Nightmare’ for Marijuana and Sentencing Reform, Advocate Says
We could see a dramatic reversal in the positive steps made by President Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder to reform drug policy, says Drug Policy Alliance’s Ethan Nadelmann
KIM BROWN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Kim Brown in Baltimore.
To date, President Barack Obama has commuted the prison terms for over 1,000 federal inmates. Over 300 of whom were serving life sentences for non-violent offences, mainly drug charges. Now, during his administration, eight states legalized the recreational sale of marijuana for adult use, and many others have allowed medicinal marijuana to become state law. And with few exceptions, the Department of Justice, under President Barack Obama, allowed these reforms to happen with relatively little federal interference.
And in August of 2016, the federal government announced the expansion of clinical studies with cannabis and deemed to allow more research institutions to grow the plant. But in several days, Barack Obama won’t be the president; Donald Trump will. And at least two of his cabinet nominees have radically different opinions about which way the War on Drugs should go.
Joining us to discuss this is Ethan Nadelmann. He’s the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which is an organization promoting alternatives to the Drug War, and he’s on the line from New York. Ethan, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
ETHAN NADELMANN: Oh, you’re very welcome, happy to be on.
KIM BROWN: Well, General John Kelly, who was Donald Trump’s pick to head the Department of Homeland Security, and Senator Jeff Sessions, who’s been tapped to be Attorney General, they each have expressed views upholding America’s historic approach to drugs — criminalize and incarcerate.
Let’s start with Jeff Sessions, and based on his tenure in the Senate and his time as Alabama’s Attorney General, what could we expect from his Department of Justice, as it relates to drugs?
ETHAN NADELMANN: Yeah, I mean Kim, like you say, just looking at the two of these guys in context; first of all, Sessions is a nightmare. Kelly is probably bad, but nowhere in the ball park of Sessions. I mean, Sessions, first of all, on the marijuana issue — the Obama administration was not that great on the issue from their first year ’til about their fifth year. But in the last three years, Obama really, and Holder, provided a qualified green light to allow the states that had voted to legally regulate marijuana to proceed, and that was really very significant.
And with Sessions, you see him being radically opposed to that policy. You see him willing to abandon all his claims around the importance of respecting states’ rights, when the issue is drugs. You hear him saying things like, only good people don’t use marijuana. So, on the marijuana issue, I would say that the marijuana policy reform movement, of which we are a part, as well as the growing marijuana industry, have a lot to be worried about. A lot to worry about Sessions appointing aggressive U.S. attorneys, nominate… or supporting aggressive federal judges, appointing hostile people in the criminal division, looking for opportunities to target people in the industry.
So, I think that… whereas the parts of the ballot initiatives that ended the criminalization of marijuana possession and personal cultivation, I don’t think the feds are going to screw around with that, because it’s sort of below their radar.
But when it comes to trying to move this industry from an underground, organized-crime driven illicit industry, to a legal one, there’s a real risk that what Sessions is doing, is throwing a wrench in the works, and then everything apart from marijuana policy and sentencing reform.
I mean, Sessions was mildly helpful on reforming those crack penalties back in 2010. But apart from that, he’s been one of the worst people in the Senate, when it comes to sentencing reform. He’s one of the small number of Republicans who held back further sentencing reform for drug offences last year. So, he’s on the far extreme, even among Republican Senators. On the issue of civil asset forfeiture reform –- you know, the ability of law enforcement to seize people’s property without having to prove anybody guilty? We have a lot of Republican support, together with Democrats, reforming that. There, too, Sessions has been a nightmare.
So, I think we’re going to see a hard stop, and even an attempted reversal, on almost everything good that President Obama and Attorney General Holder were doing in recent years.
KIM BROWN: There’s a piece on the Drug Policy Alliance website talking about these cabinet nominations from Donald Trump, and as it relates to General John Kelly, who’s been Trump’s selection to head up the Department of Homeland Security. You’re right… or… your organization writes in 2014, Kelly told a Congressional Hearing that, “Marijuana legalization in the U.S. is undermining relations in Latin America.” Can you explain what he meant by that?
ETHAN NADELMANN: Well, you know, it’s an interesting issue. Because what happened was, you had Latin American leaders, standing up and saying, “How can the U.S. start legalizing marijuana when our people down here are dying trying to stop it from being grown and exported?” So, I think that’s what Kelly was referring to.
Even President Santos, in Colombia, who has been the outstanding advocate for drug policy reform, was saying things like that publicly, while privately indicating how happy he was that marijuana legalization was moving forward. So, I think that Kelly was referring to that.
I don’t think it’s all that significant. I mean, I’ll tell you –- here are my thoughts about Kelly –- is that on the one hand, he’s clearly a very respected guy, unlike, say, Flynn, the guy who Trump has appointed to be National Security Advisor. Kelly, like the Pentagon nominee Mattis, are highly respected by Republicans and Democrats. Clearly very smart guys, clearly willing to speak truth to power, to the extent that power might be the White House. So, those things are promising.
Kelly’s also smart enough to know that the answer to America’s drug abuse problems don’t lie on the international front, that it ultimately comes down to reducing demand. So, those are the parts that suggest we don’t have to worry the way we do with Sessions.
On the other hand, the fact that in his testimony yesterday, he was saying we have to do more on the source control thing, work with people down in Peru and whatever. I mean, all the evidence shows that that’s a monstrous waste of money on the part of the United States government, to spend money down in Latin America trying to reduce crop production, in order to reduce drug problems here.
He’s also somebody who was taught… I mean, he acknowledges the fact that if you knock out one drug trafficking organization, another will simply emerge. Yet at the same time, he feels beholden, I think, to President Trump, to speak in support of building a wall and to pretend as if that will make any difference to the problem of drugs in the United States.
Even when he says drug abuse is primarily a demand issue, but as somebody from the military, typically what that means to them is, we gotta crack down in a punitive way on demand, rather than invest in productive treatment and alternatives to incarceration, and things like that.
So, I think that Kelly’s mostly going to be between a wash and a mild negative, on drug policy in the coming years. With a small possibility that he’s smart enough and honest enough that he might break out of the pack and say something interesting. But I think that possibility is slim.
KIM BROWN: We’ve heard the President-elect at least acknowledge America’s tremendous opioid addiction problem. And in many states and cities across the country, they have experienced overdose deaths that rival homicide numbers in some cases. Even some far exceeding murder rates.
And it’s sort of unclear what the Trump administration plans to do to address this issue, for the simple fact that a lot of people who tragically end up addicted to heroin started off on prescription pills. And that is an American manufactured means of pain management, that tragically spirals into addiction for so many people. What is the Trump administration’s position on how to deal with the opioid epidemic?
ETHAN NADELMANN: Yeah. I don’t know that they have much of a position, Kim. I mean, first of all, the death by accidental overdose –- and when we say overdose, it’s a bit of a misnomer, because what overdose technically actually refers to in most cases, is people combining opioid drugs, either or heroin, or pharmaceutical opiates with alcohol, or with Valium-type benzodiazepine drugs. So, when you see overdose in newspapers, the majority of those actually involve fatal drug combinations, in which the media focuses on the heroin or opiate, and ignores the other drugs that are involved.
That said — the number of people dying in America from an accidental overdose — now is the number one cause of accidental death in America. Exceeding gun violence and exceeding auto accidents.
It really is an extraordinary problem. Roughly half of that involves heroin, and roughly half of that involves pharmaceutical opioids. So, the issue is not so much people graduating from opioid pharmaceutical opioids to heroin. Oftentimes the pharmaceutical opioids are as dangerous, or more dangerous, than the heroin that they might be using. So, look at those together.
The sad thing about Donald Trump in this regard is, that even during the campaign when all of the candidates, Democrat and Republican, were obliged to address the issue of opioid overdoses and the opioid problem, Trump was one of those who had the least to say, and who at one point said, “Well, we’re gonna build a wall on the border with Mexico. That’ll take care of the problem.” Which of course, won’t stop heroin from coming into the U.S. And will do nothing vis-à-vis the opioid, the pharmaceutical opioid issue.
Now, I saw Newt Gingrich quoted a few weeks ago as saying that he thinks that Trump is going to prioritize this issue. It’s clearly the fact that this is a key element of the drug problem in America. We’re a very significant, if not disproportionate number of people getting addicted and dying, are white middle class and white lower middle class people. You know, very much Trump’s constituency. That if you look at the map of those parts of the U.S. that voted heavily for Trump, and those parts of the U.S. where people are dying in large numbers of opioid problems, those two overlap very substantially.
So, I think Trump’s going to have an incentive to do something. And the fact that this involves his constituency, the fact that it involves almost disproportionately, middle and lower middle class white people, suggests that this may be one area where he and the Republicans are less inclined to punitive approaches, and more willing to work in a bipartisan way to deal with this as a public health crisis.
KIM BROWN: Ethan, two questions here. What would be the smart way for America to proceed with how it deals with the issue of illegal drugs in the country, and the matter of how best to either treat it as a public health crisis or to treat it as a criminal matter? And how would you grade President Barack Obama’s handling on the War on Drugs?
ETHAN NADELMANN: Well, to take your last question first, I would give Obama basically a B for his first year. He made three campaign commitments, which was to roll back the harsh criminal penalties on crack cocaine, and the racially discriminatory elements to that, to pull back a bit on medical marijuana enforcement, and to allow federal funding for needle exchange. To his credit, he made good on all three of those commitments, one way or another, in his first year — 18 months.
The next four years in his administration, I thought he was very much of a disappointment. His drug czar proved to be a disappointment, his administration started cracking down, and quite frankly, his folks were saying we’re not going to do anything really that good on drug policy, or criminal justice, unless we get a second term.
To his credit, beginning in the summer of 2013, toward the end of his first year, he actually did begin to move in a very substantially good direction. And at that point, they really gave that qualified green light to Colorado and Oregon, to legalize marijuana, to show they could do it in a responsible way. They began to push heavily for reducing the number of non-violent drug offenders in federal prisons. He started issuing more clemencies than the last eight presidents in a row have issued.
They tried to pull back in some other areas of criminal enforcement. They became in their rhetoric, much more supportive of reform, and the final drug czar that they appointed, a guy named Botticelli, was far better than any of his predecessors on many of these issues, in terms of moving drug policy to a health perspective.
So, I think he would get… I would give him quite frankly, well, from a… given the political context, I would give Obama probably an A-minus, for the last two or three years.
Given what drug policy should be in America, you know, not looking at this politically, but looking at this solely in good policy terms and evidence-based grounds, I would give it probably a B-minus or C. I mean other countries, as in Europe, are so much ahead of us in smart, intelligent, public health driven policy.
As to where we should be headed, I mean, the way I would summarize the objective of drug policy reform is this: that what we need to do, is to reduce our unnecessary reliance on criminalization, and the criminal justice system in drug policy, as much as possible, while still advancing public health and safety. Right? So, think about drug policy all along a spectrum. From the highly punitive policies the United States has pursued in recent decades, to a legal policy, a policy of legal regulations as we now have, in a growing number of areas with marijuana or with alcohol or what have you.
We need to move down that spectrum, away from punitive policies, towards public health, science-driven, human rights policies. All the evidence indicates that we could go substantially further in that direction. We could stop criminalizing drug use and drug possession. We could shift resources from enforcement and incarceration, to preventions, to treatment, to services that help people. We could look at ways of making drugs, like, for example, pharmaceutical heroin, legally available in clinics, the way that a growing number of European countries and Canada are doing, with substantially good results.
All of that movement towards treating drug use and addiction to the health area is essentially risk-free. There’s no indication that doing that would increase crime, increase incarceration, increase overdose or addiction, and every indication that it would save taxpayer’s money, improve people’s lives with almost no risks at all.
It’s only –- and I’ll conclude here –- when you start moving in the direction of full legalization of drugs and allowing heroin and cocaine, methamphetamine, to actually be sold over the counter, which almost nobody is proposing. That’s when you present tremendous opportunity for great benefits, in terms of reduced crime and violence and corruption and black markets and incarceration and violation of human rights and all that, but also substantial risk, in terms of increased drug use and addiction.
But everything short of that, we should be doing now, and my hope is that Trump will find somebody to move in that direction. Although quite frankly, every single name that’s popped up in terms of who he’s looking to appoint, is not a strong advocate for moving in that direction.
KIM BROWN: We’ve been speaking with Ethan Nadelmann. He is the Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance. We’ve been discussing Donald Trump’s pick for his cabinet positions, including that of Attorney General and Senator Jeff Sessions, and Director of Homeland Security, General John Kelly, both of whom have a strong objection to the legalization of marijuana and have questionable positions about the War on Drugs.
Ethan, we appreciate your time today. Thank you.
ETHAN NADELMANN: Thank you for having me on.
KIM BROWN: And thanks for watching The Real News Network.