Will Sessions' war on weed drive legalization?

A CBS poll last week showed that 61 percent of Americans favor full legalization of marijuana, the highest number the poll has recorded, while a Quinnipiac poll puts the number at 60 percent, with an incredible 94 percent saying people ought to be able to get it if their doctors prescribe it (CBS put that figure at 88 percent). Perhaps more important, 71 percent in the CBS poll and 73 percent in the Quinnipiac poll said that the federal government should leave states that have legalized it alone.

But there’s one person who doesn’t agree, and he happens to be the chief law enforcement officer of the U.S. government. In fact, if there’s a single thing that Attorney General Jeff Sessions hates more than undocumented immigrants it might just be marijuana, which is why he appears to be planning what amounts to a return to a 1980s-style War on Drugs. We don’t yet know what practical steps Sessions will take, because things are still in the planning stages. But allow me to suggest that in the end, Sessions might actually accelerate the country’s move toward the eventual goal of full legalization.

When it comes to cannabis, the attorney general is old school. His views seem to be ripped right from “Reefer Madness ,” with dark warnings about how the evil weed will fry your brain like an egg (and who knows, maybe make you start listening to that crazy jazz music).

The big unanswered question is how the attorney general will approach the states that have passed some form of legalization. He could follow the (mostly) hands-off approach that the Obama administration did. Or he could send out federal agents to start shutting down dispensaries across the country. Or he could do something in between. But given his strong views and the fact that marijuana is still illegal under federal law, which gives him substantial power to go after the burgeoning pot industry in states that have legalized it, it’s hard to believe there isn’t some kind of crackdown coming from the Justice Department.

If and when he attacks legal marijuana, Sessions will be going after a movement with extraordinary momentum. In 2016, marijuana initiatives were on the ballot in nine states, and won in eight of them. California, Massachusetts, Maine and Nevada legalized marijuana for recreational use, while Arkansas, Florida, Montana and North Dakota passed medical marijuana initiatives. Only Arizona’s recreational measure was narrowly defeated.

So consider this scenario. Sessions initiates some kind of new War on Weed, one that results in lots of splashy headlines, dramatic video of state-licensed businesses being shut down, and thoughtful debates about the proper balance between federal and state power. Then the backlash begins. Even many Republicans express their dismay. Pressure builds on President Donald Trump.

More and more candidates come out in favor of legalization, or at least a new federal law that would remove the drug from Schedule 1 (which puts it in the same category as heroin or cocaine) and leave it up to states to decide.

Then in 2020, we see the first major-party nominee who advocates full legalization of marijuana.

We all know where America is heading on this issue, and Sessions may end up pushing us there just a little faster.

Paul Waldman is a contributor to The Washington Post’s Plum Line blog, and a senior writer at The American Prospect.

 

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