GUEST EDITORIAL: Sessions’ reversal on pot not just blowing smoke

Note to readers: Opinion Page Editor Jim Sutton is enjoying a scheduled vacation this week. In his absence, The Record will feature editorials from newspapers around the state and nation. The following editorial first appeared this week in The News Herald (Panama City).

 

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions hates pot. As Fortune magazine reported a year ago during his confirmation process, Sessions once famously said, “Good people don’t smoke marijuana.”

So, obviously, Sessions wasn’t just blowing smoke by announcing Thursday that he was rolling back an Obama administration policy that reined in investigations and prosecutions of marijuana usage under the Controlled Substances Act.

Albeit unsurprising, it’s still the wrong step.

In 2013 the Justice Department granted federal authorities broad latitude in pursuing marijuana cases in states that had legalized weed for either medicinal or recreational purposes, or both. While not seeking to undermine federal drug laws or the government’s efforts to combat illegal dope sales, the policy suggested that aggressive pot prosecutions in states that had established “strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems” did not necessarily mesh with federal enforcement interests or priorities.

A year later Congress helped that along by passing a bill that blocked federal funding for drug warriors going after programs in states that had legalized pot.

Sessions halted that policy on Thursday, vowing a “return to the rule of law.” The new guidance, Session said in a statement, “simply directs all U.S. Attorneys to use previously established prosecutorial principles that provide them all the necessary tools to disrupt criminal organizations, tackle the growing drug crisis, and thwart violent crime across our country.”

But as pot proponents justifiably condemn Sessions, let us explode the myth that President Barack Obama, despite openly admitting his own drug usage in his youth, was among their allies.

Obama’s hands-off position on legal pot during his 2008 campaign was similar to Donald Trump’s eight years later. Yet The Nation magazine reported in October 2013 that the Drug Enforcement Agency during Obama’s first term had conducted 270 raids on medical marijuana facilities — a dozen more than had been executed over the previous 12 years combined.

The Obama Justice Department’s relaxed posture toward enforcement later in his tenure likely emerged after officials stared at reality. The push for legalizing marijuana at the state level in the past few years has been increasingly potent and irresistible. Support for legalization of pot is at a record high. Similarly, two-thirds of states have legalized pot for recreational or medical usage, or both, or have decriminalized possession of small amounts.

Florida joined them last year, when 71 percent of voters backed an amendment creating a network of medical-pot distributorships, including GrowHealthy in Lake Wales, whose owners have spent more than $2 million trying to get their business going.

Like Sessions, we disagreed with this legalization movement, thinking it was too risky and a potential menace to public health. Yet reality slapped us, too, after 71 percent of Florida voters supported medical marijuana in 2016.

Hopefully, President Trump will step in and stick to his campaign pledge to honor laws passed by states, such as Florida, that sanction the pot trade.

 

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