Erika D. Smith

Why Jeff Sessions’ deplorable new war on marijuana will fail: It’s all about money

There are a whole lot of reasons to be mad at Attorney General Jeff Sessions for pushing federal prosecutors – against all logic and reason – to crack down on marijuana in California and other states where it’s legal.


The prospect of a new war on drugs. The lost tax revenue. The opening for drug cartels. The realization that public policy is being driven by the tired notion about pot being a “gateway drug” that is as dangerous as heroin and will fry your brain like an egg, because this is your brain on drugs.

It’s enough to make a person who is 21 or older go smoke a … never mind.

There is one interesting twist to all of this, though. Usually, when the federal government starts cracking down on drugs, it’s black and brown people who get disproportionately rounded up and thrown in prison for possession. This time, I doubt that’s going to happen.

For once, wealthy white people will have as much, if not more, to fear from the federal government than poor people of color do. Blame the rapid corporatization of the cannabis industry.

While minorities have largely been locked out, succumbing to barriers such as having a criminal record or lacking the money to get licensed, mostly white venture capitalists and corporations have been investing in large-scale cultivation operations and expensive manufacturing equipment to turn bud into dabs and edibles.

This dynamic could change in the future as equity programs created by Sacramento and Oakland diversify the pot industry. But for now, these white-owned businesses, along with the storefronts also run by mostly white entrepreneurs, are the most obvious and tempting targets for federal prosecutors. These people are now the “usual suspects.”

Of course, not everyone agrees.

On Thursday, Rep. Barbara Lee, an Oakland Democrat, accused Sessions in a tweet of a “direct attack on communities of color, who bear the burden of overzealous policing & mass incarceration.”

The deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Minnesota’s Rep. Keith Ellison, piled on: “The war on drugs didn’t stop drug usage; it just ruined a lot of lives,” he tweeted. “Jeff Sessions is reviving it because he believes in using the criminal justice system as an instrument of racial and economic control of poor people and brown people.”

I understand the finger pointing and the fear. For more than 30 years, Sessions has been swearing up and down that he’s not a racist while simultaneously giving minorities reasons to view him with suspicion.

As a senator from Alabama, he was the guy known for using the N-word and joking about the Ku Klux Klan. And now as attorney general, he has turned his back on the spirit of the Voting Rights Act, gutted attempts to reduce racial bias in policing, and proudly supported President Donald Trump’s crackdown on immigrants and travelers from Muslim countries.

He’s deplorable.

But, I suspect even Sessions can see past skin color long enough to recognize that marijuana, a drug he has long despised, is becoming permanently embedded in American culture. He knows his time is short, if not already past.

Including California, eight states and Washington, D.C., have legalized pot for adults, and 21 other states allow it to be used for medicinal purposes. It’s inevitable that more states will follow, given that Americans of all stripes – even Republicans – widely support legalization.

But this is surely why Sessions decided to rescind the Obama-era policy on weed the same week California started selling it for recreational use. He is trying to destroy an industry that’s expected to grow from $6 billion in sales in 2016 to a whopping $50 billion by 2026, according to Cowen & Co.

The stock market, recognizing that, reacted. Some cannabis companies lost more than 30 percent of their value in trading Thursday, according to New Frontier Data.

Sen. Cory Gardner reacted, too – and vehemently. On Thursday, the Colorado Republican vowed to hold all Justice Department nominees unless Sessions changes his mind.

“With no prior notice to Congress,” he tweeted, “the Justice Department has trampled on the will of the voters of CO and other states.”

Gardner isn’t worried about minorities getting thrown in prison or deported on trumped up federal drug charges. He’s worried about upending an industry in his state that employs thousands, counts sales of more than $1 billion a year and has become vital driver of tourism.

This is why, ultimately, Sessions and the Trump administration will fail.

Cracking down on marijuana is no longer just about cops harassing black men over a half-ounce of pot, taking them into prison and throwing away the key – although that continues to happen across the nation at alarmingly disproportionate rates.

It now means cracking down on big money. This is the era of Big Marijuana. And Big Marijuana has financial backers and supporters in red and blue states alike.

California has decided to fight the attorney general's decision, as have other states that have legalized pot. On Thursday, Attorney General Xavier Becerra and Bureau of Cannabis Control Chief Executive Lori Ajax each issued statements saying they’ll defend Proposition 64. That’s good.

About half of American adults – that’s 45 percent, according to Gallup, and 52 percent, according to Marist – say they’ve smoked pot at least once in their lives, and I’m assuming most of them inhaled. What’s more, 12 percent of U.S. adults said they use the drug regularly, up from 7 percent in 2013.

Cancer patients smoke it to cure nausea and parents give it to their kids in candy-form to ease seizures. On Thursday, I saw an old guy using a walker to hobble along H Street to enter A Therapeutic Alternative for weed. College kids use it to get high. The drug is used by military veterans to cope with PTSD. Even Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, an Orange County Republican, uses marijuana dull arthritis pain.

This isn’t the war on drugs of the Nixon era that Sessions seems to be fighting in his fevered mind. Unlike Nancy Reagan, the attorney general can’t just say no and expect the nation to listen.

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, @Erika_D_Smith

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