President Trump is reportedly weighing a plan to fire U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and potentially replace him with Scott Pruitt, who currently leads the Environmental Protection Agency.
Marijuana industry operators and consumers might initially breathe a sigh of relief at the prospect of Sessions leaving the Justice Department, since it is difficult to imagine a more hostile opponent of legalization than the current attorney general.
But a look at Pruitt’s record on cannabis, and the prospect of him taking on oversight of federal drug law enforcement, will likely alarm many in the cannabis community.
Pruitt’s Anti-Marijuana Record
As Oklahoma’s attorney general, Pruitt filed a federal lawsuit against neighboring Colorado’s marijuana policies. While the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately decided not to take the case, briefs from Pruitt and his Nebraska co-plaintiff made clear a personal disdain for cannabis legalization.
Trying to draw a connection to previous environmental disputes between states, one brief called legal marijuana a “state-authorized pollutant.”
“Colorado authorized the generation of a harmful, illegal substance that by the foreseeable operation of users and abusers inevitably enters and causes injury in Nebraska and Oklahoma,” it said. “Nebraska and Oklahoma can no more prevent Colorado’s marijuana from crossing its borders than it can prevent its winds from blowing and rivers from flowing.”
Pruitt and his Nebraska counterpart also compared the possibility that the Supreme Court wouldn’t overturn Colorado’s marijuana law to “saying that a tavern keeper cannot be held responsible for the drunk who kills a family with his car even though he knowingly sold the drunk ten beers in two hours.”
In a separate instance of prohibitionist legal advocacy, Pruitt attempted to rewrite the ballot title for a medical cannabis measure in his own state.
“This measure legalizes the licensed use, sale, and growth of marijuana in Oklahoma,” he edited the language to read, in what appeared to be a fairly transparent move to make voters think it was a recreational initiative. “There are no qualifying medical conditions identified.”
Advocates sued, and the state Supreme Court ultimately overturned the attorney general’s changes. But the delay meant that the measure was bumped from the 2016 general election ballot to this year’s June 26 primary.
Perhaps even more alarming from a potential U.S. attorney general, filings from Pruitt’s office in the Oklahoma case assert that states don’t have the right to enact their own cannabis laws in contravention of federal prohibition. He even went so far as to imply that local officials charged with implementing legalization policies could be prosecuted under federal law.
“A state may not establish its own policy that is directly counter to federal policy against trafficking in controlled substances,” read one brief. “[The Oklahoma initiative] requires State officials to conspire…to violate federal drug laws by issuing licenses that will break federal law if certain preconditions are met, and to arguably share in the profits for breaking federal law by taxing the sale of marijuana.”
Separately, Pruitt moved last year as EPA administrator to block approval of pesticides for use on marijuana in states where it is legal.
“Any economic, social or environmental costs associated with pesticide use on cannabis would not be reasonable or justified in light of the fact that such use is in furtherance of an illegal act,” he wrote, referring to federal law.
Trump Wants To Dump Sessions
Trump is upset with Sessions over his decision to recuse himself from the investigation into Russia’s attempts to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election, a move that the president believes made him vulnerable to scrutiny by special prosecutor Robert Mueller.
Now, amidst a broader administration shakeup that has already led to the dismissal of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Trump may take the opportunity to show Sessions the door, Vanity Fair reported on Wednesday.
“According to two Republicans in regular contact with the White House, there have been talks that Trump could replace Sessions with E.P.A. Administrator Scott Pruitt, who would not be recused from overseeing the Russia probe,” the magazine wrote. “Also, as an agency head and former state attorney general, Pruitt would presumably have a good shot at passing a Senate confirmation hearing.”
In January, Politico reported Pruitt “told friends and associates that he’s interested in becoming attorney general.”
Pruitt Confirmation Not A Sure Thing
Sessions, a longtime legalization opponent, moved in January to rescind an Obama-era memo that has generally allowed states to implement their own marijuana laws without federal interference.
That led Sen. Cory Gardner, Republican of Colorado, to block Department of Justice nominations in protest.
.@SenCoryGardner on Attorney General Jeff Sessions' #marijuana policy change: "I will be holding all nominations for the Department of Justice. The people of Colorado deserve answers." pic.twitter.com/BnVEkA54ag
— CSPAN (@cspan) January 4, 2018
After public back-and-forth between the senator and attorney general, as well as closed-door meetings, Gardner agreed to lift holds on select positions.
But if Trump were to move to replace Sessions with another hardcore cannabis prohibitionist — one who has actually sued Gardner’s own state over the issue, no less — it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which the Colorado senator would support confirmation. And even if he didn’t block a floor vote outright, which he very well may be willing to do, his individual support for the nomination would be crucial in a Senate that is narrowly divided along party lines by just a two-seat margin.
Pruitt’s views on the ability of states to legalize marijuana would also likely draw skepticism from other Republican senators who have been active on the issue, such as Rand Paul of Kentucky and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
Confirmation Vote Might Not Be Needed
But even if Pruitt’s confirmation by the Senate seems precarious, Trump may have another option. Under the 1998 Vacancies Reform Act, presidents can appoint any previously Senate-confirmed official to other posts for limited periods of time. Because Pruitt was approved as EPA administrator last year, he’s eligible.
While that means Pruitt could be installed as attorney general without another Senate vote, he wouldn’t be able to keep the job permanently.
“Under the VRA, such a person could serve as acting attorney general for only 210 days—plus another 210 days if Trump eventually gets around to nominating someone,” Politico reported.
And 420 days is a lot of time to build on Sessions’s anti-marijuana moves and do further damage to the businesses and consumers that are complying with state laws.
Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore.
Andrew Yang Peddles Marijuana-Themed Presidential Campaign Merchandise
2020 candidate Andrew Yang announced on Saturday that his campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination is rolling out a line of marijuana-themed merch.
The limited edition products blend Yang’s love of mathematics with his support for cannabis reform. A t-shirt being offered for $30 simply says, “Math. Money. Marijuana.” And a now-sold-out baseball cap says “Math” on the front and displays a cannabis leaf on back. There’s also a bumper sticker that says, “Legalize Marijuana.”
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)
Buttigieg Pledges To Decriminalize Possession Of All Drugs In First Term As President
South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg released a comprehensive plan on Friday that calls for “decriminalizing all drug possession” in his first presidential term as a means to combat the opioid epidemic and treat addiction as a public health, rather than criminal justice, issue.
Decriminalization is just one action the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate said he’d pursue in order to reform the country’s mental health care system and bolster substance abuse treatment. His plan also includes proposals to reduce sentences for drug offenses other than possession, increase access to the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone and make it easier to implement syringe exchange programs.
America’s addiction and mental health care crisis has been building for decades—due to decades of neglect by political leaders in Washington. Today, I’m proposing a new approach that tackles this crisis with the urgency and care it deserves. pic.twitter.com/U8F9DXJPC2
— Pete Buttigieg (@PeteButtigieg) August 23, 2019
Buttigieg’s “Healing and Belonging in America” plan emphasizes the need to divert people suffering from addiction away from prisons and into treatment. He said he’d accomplish that by expanding diversionary programs and evidence-based training “for drug courts, mental health courts, and other alternatives to incarceration for justice-involved persons.”
The goal of decriminalization and diversion is to reduce “the number of people incarcerated due to mental illness or substance use by 75 percent in the first term.”
Our country is in the midst of a mental health and addiction crisis, worsened by decades of stigma and political neglect. I’ll bring a new approach, rooted in commitment and community, to tackle this crisis with the urgency it deserves. https://t.co/spBoh5KH4X
— Pete Buttigieg (@PeteButtigieg) August 23, 2019
Under his plan, sentencing reform for drug offenses other than possession would be applied retroactively and coupled with expungements for past convictions. Buttigieg pointed to research demonstrating that “incarceration for drug offenses has no effect on drug misuse, drug arrests, or overdose deaths” and instead “actually increases the rate of overdose deaths.”
“We cannot incarcerate ourselves out of this public health problem.”
“To ensure that people with a mental illness or substance use disorder can heal, we will decriminalize these conditions,” the proposal states. “When someone is undergoing a crisis or is caught using a drug, they should be treated by a health professional rather than punished in a jail cell.”
“All presidential candidates should join Pete Buttigieg in recognizing that the criminalization of people for their drug use is wrong and simply bad policy,” Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, executive director of the Drug Policy Action, said in a press release. “Possession of drugs for personal use is the single most arrested offense in the United States, eclipsing arrest rates for any other offense. With overdose numbers skyrocketing and entire communities, disproportionately black or brown, suffering from criminalization, it’s time for policymakers to shift gears. Taking an evidence-based, health-centered approach to address this crisis is not only true leadership – it’s common sense.”
The mayor also made harm reduction policies a key component of his strategy. He said take-home naloxone programs would be expanded to all 50 states by 2024 and that harm reduction services would be expanded “to reduce overdose deaths and the spread of infectious diseases related to needle sharing.”
The plan would make naloxone “broadly available in order to reverse overdoses” and remove “legislative and regulatory restrictions on the use of federal funds for syringe service programs.”
Buttigieg said the federal government should provide funding for state and local health departments to purchase the medication, make sure that it’s “available in public spaces and workplaces” similar to first aid kids and encourage “co-prescribing of naloxone with opioids, either by individual physicians or direct dispensing by pharmacists.”
Existing federal law makes it difficult to establish syringe exchange programs, in part because federal funds can’t be used to buy needles. The restrictions “hamper state and local responses, both because they limit resources and because they convey a negative message about the value of these programs, despite overwhelming scientific evidence that they can prevent transmission of HIV and hepatitis.”
In addition to lifting those barriers, the candidate said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “would also work with states to remove any criminal liability for those participating in” syringe exchange programs.
“Harm reduction programs are a critical part of any effective response to the opioid and injection drug use crisis. They minimize the negative impact of drug use without encouraging it, while reducing other side effects of drug use. In particular, this means access to syringe service programs for people who inject drugs, that link them to treatment, and provides access to sterile syringes. These programs help prevent transmission of HIV, viral hepatitis, and other infectious diseases associated with needle sharing, and reduce overdoses by deploying medication such as naloxone that help reverse the effects of opioids.”
One harm reduction policy that didn’t make the cut in Buttigieg’s plan is safe injection sites, where people could use illicit drugs under the supervision of medical professionals who could reverse overdoses and recommend treatment options. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who are also running for the Democratic nomination, both proposed legalizing such facilities as part of criminal justice reform plans they released this month.
“Decades of failed mental health and addiction policy, coupled with mass incarceration that criminalized mental illness and drug use, have left us with a mental health and addiction care system so broken that today there are more people with serious mental illness in prisons than in treatment facilities,” Buttigieg said.
The candidate also made ending incarceration for drug possession—as well as legalizing marijuana—central principles of his previously released criminal justice reform plan, which he released last month.
But while the prior plan did not explicitly describe the move as “decriminalizing” drugs, even though advocates commonly use that word to refer to policies that remove the threat of being imprisoned for possession, the new document does use that terminology—signaling a shift in clarity as Buttigieg continues to develop his campaign messaging.
In other instances, he borrowed language from his criminal justice reform plan, specifically as it concerns how criminalizing drug use can increase rates of overdose, for his mental health proposal.
“Despite equal rates of use, Black Americans are nearly four times as likely to be arrested for using marijuana,” the criminal justice plan states. “Research shows that incarceration for drug offenses has no effect on drug misuse, drug arrests, or overdose deaths. In fact, some studies show that incarceration actually increases the rate of overdose deaths.”
Buttigieg mentioned that, as with drug offenses, black people are also more likely to die from overdoses. And that’s due to “the current broken system that criminalizes mental illness and addiction” that was “built during the crack epidemic of the 1980s.”
This story was updated to include comment from the Drug Policy Action.
Photo courtesy of Flickr/Gage Skidmore.
White House Drug Officials Say Legal Marijuana Is Up To States
Two top federal drug officials, including the White House drug czar, recently said that marijuana legalization should be left up to states.
The comments stand out coming from the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), which has historically played a central role in defending blanket federal prohibition.
Jim Carroll, the Trump-appointed drug czar who directs the administration’s drug policies, told Fox 59 reporter Kayla Sullivan that he considers legalization a states’ right issue. He added that he’d like to see targeted education campaigns concerning cannabis use during pregnancy and underage usage as well as research into impaired driving.
Got the answer: He believes it should be left up to the state. However, he does want to educate people on the effect marijuana has on young brain development, pregnant women and wants to come up with better guidance & testing for marijuana while driving. https://t.co/eifryNJB1j
— Kayla Sullivan (@KaylaReporting) August 14, 2019
It’s a particularly notable position given that federal law stipulates that the drug czar is required to “take such actions as necessary to oppose any attempt to legalize the use of a substance” listed as Schedule I under the Controlled Substances Act, including marijuana.
Even if Carroll’s remarks arguably don’t directly violate that statute, they are significant in that he doesn’t seem to have taken the opportunity to proactively oppose state legalization efforts when asked by a reporter.
Anne Hazlett, senior advisor at ONDCP, also weighed in on cannabis legalization on Wednesday, telling CentralIllinoisProud.com that marijuana legalization is “a state decision.”
“Marijuana is an ongoing challenge that is being addressed in many of our states,” she said. “This is a state decision, and we would like to see additional research done so that these decisions being made at a state level are being made in a manor that is fully informed.”
Though the comments from Carroll and Hazlett seem to reflect an evolving understanding of the federal government’s role in imposing prohibition on the states, the ONDCP director has previously made clear he’s not enthusiastic about the burgeoning legal market.
During a House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing in May, Carroll raised concerns about THC potency in marijuana products, saying “the marijuana we have today is nothing like what it was when I was a kid, when I was in high school.”
“Back then the THC, the ingredient in marijuana that makes you high, was in the teens in terms of the percentage,” he said. “Now what we’re seeing is twice that, three times that, in the plant.”
He also said that more research is needed and that the Drug Enforcement Administration as well as the Department of Health and Human Services are “working hard to make sure that we understand the impact of legalization of marijuana on the body.”
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.