Libertarians denounce Attorney General Jeff Sessions for overriding state marijuana laws
On Jan. 4, acting against the advice of his own Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Cole Memorandum. This Obama-era memo had allowed states to set their own cannabis rules and regulations, with minimal intervention by the federal government. In rescinding the memo, the Trump administration has flouted the U.S. Constitution’s provision to reserve most powers to the states, a precept that the Libertarian Party holds as fundamental to the federalist structure the country’s founders crafted.
“Sessions’s move to reinstate excessive power at the federal level is like opening hunting season,” said Libertarian National Committee Chair Nicholas Sarwark. “Now federal prosecutors may fire their regulatory ‘shotguns,’ at will, at anybody in the pot business, whether medical or recreational, whether operating legally under state laws or not. It is high time for Congress to act. They should immediately end prohibition: that means repeal all drug laws and grant amnesty to federal prisoners found guilty solely of nonviolent drug offenses.”
Since 2014, the bipartisan Rohrabacher–Blumenauer amendment (formerly Rohrabacher–Farr) attached to all federal spending bills has served to prohibit the use of federal funds on medical-marijuana prosecution, thus offering individuals and businesses only a veneer of protection. In 2015, Rep. Tom McClintock (R–Calif.) proposed a stronger amendment that would also apply to recreational marijuana and would codify into law that spending ban, but which unfortunately has not yet been passed.
Libertarians appreciate that other representatives from the older parties have also been moving toward the repeal of prohibition.
On the Senate floor on Jan. 4, Sen. Cory Gardner (R–Colo.), who actually opposed marijuana legalization in Colorado, blasted Sessions: “Prior to his confirmation, then-Senator Sessions … told me there were no plans to reverse the Cole memorandum. … One tweet later …
[the policy was] completely reversed.” Gardner vowed to put all Justice Department nominations on hold until the Cole memo rescission is reversed.
In December, Sen. Ron Wyden (D–Ore.) joined as cosponsor of Sen. Cory Booker’s (D–N.J.) Marijuana Justice Act (S. 1689), which would remove cannabis from the federal list of controlled substances, making it legal at the federal level. This bill, however, is saddled with a $500 million annual price tag, and, according to Jim Moore of the Tom McCall Center for Policy Innovation, it has little chance of passing.
In February 2017, Reps. Tom Garrett (R–Va.) and Tulsi Gabbard (D–Hawaii) introduced the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act (H.R. 1227), which would remove cannabis from the federal controlled substances list although still impose federal criminal penalties for transporting cannabis into a state that prohibits it.
“While these efforts seem encouraging, Libertarians expect the men and women we have elected to represent us to stop dawdling, fulfill their oath to defend our rights, and comply fully with the constitution as the law of the land,” Sarwark said. “Republicans should support ending marijuana prohibition at the federal level as a ‘states’ rights’ issue, if nothing else. But both Democrats and Republicans should join with Libertarians in supporting its repeal, as a fundamental issue of individual, civil rights.”
It turns out that the empirical data support the principle held by the LP since its 1971 founding, that all people have an inherent right to medicate or recreate however they choose, so long as they respect the rights of others. Since Colorado legalized medical and recreational use of cannabis, teen use of marijuana there has declined by more than 18 percent, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. A study published by the American Journal of Public Health showed no change in rates of auto accident fatalities in the states of Washington and Colorado after legalization, compared to similar states.
Attitudes have shifted, as well. Gallup’s latest survey from 2017 shows that 64 percent of Americans, including a majority of Republicans, support legalization of marijuana. Americans are no longer responding to the racist divide-and-conquer tactics of the early years of the drug war. In 1994, Richard Nixon’s domestic-policy chief, John Ehrlichman, admitted to author Dan Baum, “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the [Vietnam] war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders … and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
According to the ACLU, black people are ten times more likely to be imprisoned for drug offenses than are white people, and three times more likely to be arrested. A 2016 Sentencing Project study found that “Harsh drug laws are clearly an important factor in the persistent racial and ethnic disparities observed in state prisons. … Blacks are … 2.5 times as likely to be arrested for drug possession. This is despite the evidence that whites and blacks use drugs at roughly the same rate.”
Unequal protection under the law isn’t the only sinister aspect of the Sessions policy change. It also opens the door, wide, to more civil asset forfeiture. Last July, Sessions told a crowd of Minneapolis law-enforcement professionals, “We plan to develop policies to increase forfeitures.” Civil asset forfeiture can be literal highway robbery. For example, if a drug-sniffing dog “alerts” to the odor of marijuana during a routine traffic stop, under the ruling in Illinois v. Caballes, a search warrant is not required. The search may yield as little as a gram of marijuana, and the officer can seize the vehicle — no need for civil or criminal charges.
With its lure of increasing revenue, the tactic of civil asset forfeiture is far too great a temptation — one which federal government agents should never be offered. The LP calls upon Congress to remove that temptation immediately by passing a bill to end the unconstitutional marijuana prohibition, and upon President Donald Trump, who campaigned on empowering states to be responsible for their own cannabis laws, to sign such legislation.
In 2018, the Libertarian Party has plans to field at least 2,000 candidates for federal, state, and local offices nationwide. Americans can count on their Libertarian elected officials to honor their oath of office and make the moral, sensible decision to put an end to prohibition, once and for all.