A leading figure in the administration of Donald Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ anti-immigrant sentiments complement the nativist mindset of top-Trump advisor, Steve Bannon. His alleged racism cost him an opportunity for a federal judgeship in the 1980s, and he is a longtime foe of legal cannabis.
Sessions’ feelings are frighteningly captured by an infamous quote. In hearings for his failed 1986 nomination, Senate Judiciary members unearthed an instance where Sessions said he saw no problem with the Ku Klux Klan until he learned they smoked marijuana (Marcin, 2017).
His disavowal of those statements was enough for the Republican Senate to secure his nomination as America’s top cop, where he has turned his sights on states that have legalized medicinal or recreational cannabis.
Sessions told the Senate in a 2016 hearing that “good people don’t smoke marijuana,” continuing “we need grown-ups in charge in Washington to say marijuana is not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized, it ought not to be minimized, that it’s in fact a very real danger.” (Marcin, 2017)
He has repeatedly highlighted federal enforcement of marijuana laws as a top priority for his Justice Department. Drug Policy Alliance Executive Director, Ethan Nadelmann, has called Sessions “a drug war dinosaur” over his stance.
Proponents of legal marijuana fear a return of the same hostile stance that first confronted legalization efforts, including farm and dispensaries raids, and a reversal of federal rules that are meant to allow cannabis businesses to access banks. Marijuana consumers and patients are also worried that their medical information and purchasing data will fall into federal hands.
California Takes a Stand
In the face of Sessions’ saber-rattling, the California State Assembly is advancing legislation that would make the state a “sanctuary” for marijuana users. Bill 1578 would forbid law enforcement from taking action that would be in collusion with a federal cannabis crackdown without a valid warrant.
Advanced by the Public Safety Committee with a 5-2 vote on April 18, the bill has been sent to state representatives for consideration. If passed, it would deny state and local cops the ability to “investigate, detain, detect, report, or arrest a person for marijuana activity that is authorized by law in the State of California.” The bill also prohibits information-sharing about marijuana businesses, patients, and consumers between California cops and federal authorities.
Drafted by the DPA and introduced by a team of six assembly members and senators, including leader Democrat Reggie Jones-Sawyer, an assembly member for South Los Angeles, the bill is backed the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). California NORML coordinator, Dale Gieringer, has compared 1578 to municipal non-cooperation over immigration efforts.
It’s not without its critics. Law enforcement figures, unions, and advocacy groups say the law would be an intrusion into their jobs and could jeopardize the state’s recreational legalization push. Opponents include the California State Sheriffs’ Association, the California Police Chiefs Association, and the Association of Deputy District Attorneys. National criminalization organization, Smart Approaches to Marijuana, has also voiced opposition to the bill.
However, bill proponents are swift to point out that the law protects legal businesses recognized by the state, and that law enforcement is free to collude with federal authorities over the targeting of illegal sales and production, such as unpermitted dispensaries and illegal grows. They add that, by restricting local police from working with the feds, law enforcement can better direct their efforts and, consequentially, funds to more-important matters. For example, Jones-Sawyer recently encouraged law enforcement to target illegal marijuana businesses during an interview with LA Weekly.
The bill has seen tepid support from state marijuana business groups, such as the Southern California Coalition, who say that more producers should be protected by the law. They assert that the law would do little for people of color who make up a significant portion of so-called “gray market” businesses.
Anti-Federal Bills Are Old Hat in California
California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996, and after years of building support for recreational legalization, it joined a wave of states that legalized recreational cannabis on election night. Since the mid-90s California has been the target of federal raids on grows and dispensaries, with enforcement actions reaching their peak under the presidency of George W. Bush. Barack Obama softened the federal stance towards states that legalized cannabis, but still oversaw some raids.
The state also has experience working to shield information held by the state from federal authorities. In a 2010 oversight effort in Mendocino County, outdoor growers who wanted to grow up to 99 plants were asked to register with the local sheriff, who would dispatch deputies to grows to ensure compliance. The Obama administration sued Mendocino County in 2012 over the legality of the program and sought information on those who had participated. The matter was settled the following year, with Mendocino County electing to provide their records regarding the program, but not the names of county permit-holders.
But can the bill effectively shield cannabis businesses and consumers if it becomes law? It’s hard to say. The law could be challenged in federal court. All state legalization laws are technically invalid, as they contradict federal law, which has superseding power. The government seems intent on keeping cannabis classified as a Schedule I drug, as a potential rescheduling consideration by the Drug Enforcement Agency last year elected to keep the status quo.
California May Be in for a Fight
Previous administrations have voiced their opposition to legalization but have steered away from taking states to court to overrule the electorate. Unfortunately, the Trump administration has, in many other areas, signaled its willingness to be combative over federal non-compliance.
Sessions’ main fight so far has been to threaten “sanctuary cities” that comply minimally with federal immigration policies. Anonymous officials with Immigration and Customs Enforcement told CNN in March that large-scale immigration crackdowns are meant to target sanctuary cities in a retaliatory fashion. It’s safe to say that comprehensive drug policy can’t benefit society if its primary motivation is revenge. But short of real policy wins, the Trump administration can keep its base mobilized by issuing threats, and the war against legal marijuana, for now, is a war of words. And, as the fight over immigration shows, the Trump administration is capable of backing up its threats.
Trump Administration a Very Real Threat
Trump, himself, voiced support for legalization on the campaign trail, his positions while in office have proven to be malleable, to say the least. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters in March more enforcement against legal cannabis was coming.
Sessions has yet to show his hand when it comes to fighting legal marijuana, but he does have tools at his disposal to act independently on the matter. The enforcement agenda of the Justice Department is decided on by the president, his advisors, and the department head. The only things standing between an immediate crackdown on legal cannabis are the political climate, in which Trump has proven historically unpopular at this stage of the presidency, and a provision called the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment of the congressional appropriations bill.
The 2014 rule states that no Justice Department or Drug Enforcement Agency funds can be used to target legal, state-sanctioned marijuana business. The rule must be re-approved annually as part of the budget-drafting process, which means it could be stripped by a Republican congress. It remains to be seen if lawmakers who are pressed for time under the threat of a government shutdown would wage war on the rule, or if House Democrats would have enough support to insist on the bill’s inclusion, should Republicans attempt to scrap it.
Legalization backers that were excited about the end of prohibition were as disappointed as everyone else when Trump won the election in surprising fashion. While progress has been made at the state and national level, cannabis advocates are hard at work pressing their states to resist the Trump agenda. California appears to be leading the charge so that hard-won gains in ending the War on Drugs and creating a 21st-century cannabis economy are protected.
Of course, only time will tell if their efforts may be worth mirroring in other progressive states, or if any actions will be useless against Sessions, Spicer, and the rest of the Trump team. For now, medical users wait with bated breath, hope for the best, and prepare for a fight. It might get ugly. It might get difficult. But we will persevere.