After foraging through the dumpster of discarded ideas, the Trump administration has dragged out another fetid reject as part of its campaign to roll back modernity, common sense and the will of the people.
We know that Attorney General Jeff Sessions is a small, backward-looking man with even smaller, more backward-looking ideas, but what was the thinking behind his new federal crackdown on legal marijuana? Punish the blue states? Create cannabis chaos in the large swath of the American West and the other states where voters have said they want police to spend their time on real crime?
Or is it just another betrayal of the fools who voted for a man aptly described from inside the White House in Michael Wolff’s new book, as “less a person than a collection of terrible traits”? For one way to really tick off Trump’s base is to start arresting them.
There comes a time in the evolution of social policy when law enforcement, science, medical authorities and the majority of the public reach a consensus about changing course. At this moment, criminalizing marijuana has never been more unpopular, nor a more unjust way to ensure that otherwise law-abiding people have to fear police.
It’s not just that 71 percent of Americans oppose federal government efforts to stop marijuana sales, but an equally large majority thinks overall drug abuse should be treated as an addiction and mental health problem, rather than a criminal offense. The consensus crosses class lines and the racial divide, even if enforcement of drug laws does not.
And yet, after the government spent more than $1 trillion over the past four decades on the failed drug war, Trump now wants to double down on the most failed aspect of modern prohibition. According to the most recent statistics, more than 1 million people a year are arrested for simple drug possession in the United States — and more than half a million of those arrests are for marijuana possession.
More people are arrested for pot possession than all the crimes that the FBI classifies as violent — one arrest every minute. This at a time when only 14 percent of the people think marijuana should be illegal. The voters have spoken on this, in the 29 states and the District of Columbia where marijuana use is legalized in some form.
I live in one of those states, Washington, a pioneer in prohibition rollback. What you hear most from people, confirmed by studies, is that state-regulated pot retailing has turned out to be no big deal. Legalization did not significantly increase youth drug abuse, or increase impaired driving. But it’s brought in nearly half a billion dollars in tax revenue just in Colorado.
It’s neither a panacea nor an open door to abuse. It’s just the obvious thing to do — a big duh, acknowledging the private right of a freedom-loving people.
The real problem, as any sentient public servant can tell you, is opioid abuse. Overdoses from prescription opioids have quadrupled since 1999 — as have sales. Almost 200,000 Americans have died since 1999 from taking a lethal dose of drugs pushed by the major pharmaceutical companies. Only the Civil War and World War II had higher fatalities.
And here’s where it gets particularly crazy. Big Pharma, the one drug dealer the Justice Department should be throwing all its resources at, has been trying to limit marijuana legalization efforts. It doesn’t want the competition from a natural palliative that is infinitely safer than the drugs sold from your neighborhood CVS, or alcohol for that matter. Among the efforts: Insys Therapeutics, a company whose former executives have been charged with conspiracy to bribe doctors to prescribe more of their product, gave $500,000 in 2016 to defeat Arizona pot legalization.
In announcing the throwback to a discredited policy Thursday, Sessions described the effort as a “return to the rule of law.” It’s a return to insanity, and to creating more outlaws. From here on, federal prosecutors will have discretion to attack small-business owners selling a product deemed legal by their state. Weren’t Republicans supposed to be champions of states’ rights?
The Justice Department “has trampled on the will of the voters,” said Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, a Republican in a state full of independent voters. Sessions had promised, before his confirmation, not to go after the legal marijuana industry, said Gardner. Trump did the same. “I think it’s up to the states,” Trump said during the presidential campaign. “I am a states person.”
While Trump gorges himself on the twin health risks of junk food and Fox News alone in his bed at the White House, Sessions is now free to pursue an archaic moral crusade. He calls marijuana a “gateway drug,” a substance that is only “slightly less awful” than heroin.
As arrests mount once again, as the black market bounces back, as vital police resources are wasted, Trump’s new era of prohibition will have the same effect as that of the old Prohibition: to make criminals of nonviolent citizens, and cynics of the law.
Timothy Egan worked for 18 years as a writer for The New York Times, first as the Pacific Northwest correspondent, then as a national enterprise reporter.