Man in charge of pot laws doesn't understand them

Man in charge of pot laws doesn't understand them

VicesFebruary 28, 2017 By Reilly Capps

The stakes around marijuana are high right now. For decades, the people selling pot became felons. Today, they're millionaires. Pot money used to fund violent Mexican death squads. Today, it's public schools.

On marijuana, attorney general Jeff Sessions has a lot of power. If he wants to, he can ramp up enforcement of the federal law against marijuana. And even though 71 percent of Americans would oppose greater enforcement, and even though Donald Trump said during the campaign he'd leave medicinal pot up to the states, Sessions is sounding aggressive on pot, especially when it comes to recreational — as opposed to medicinal — pot.

In the past two days, Sessions has been explaining why. His explanations, especially about pot and violence, don't line up with reality.

In a jumbly, incoherent statement yesterday, Sessions connected all kinds of ideas about pot and violence in all kinds of bad ways. “Current levels of THC in marijuana are very high compared to what they were a few years ago, and we’re seeing real violence around that,” Sessions said. “Experts are telling me there’s more violence around marijuana than one would think and there’s big money involved.”

That's wrong on so many levels. It's untrue at the state level. Colorado and Washington and other legal marijuana states don't have more violence, studies find again and again and again. If anything, they're safer. It's untrue on a physiological level. High levels of THC, as anyone knows, don't even make you more violent inside Grand Theft Auto. It's untrue on the level of personal interaction. Marijuana users and dealers aren't more violent than other people when "there's big money involved."

But even when big money, marijuana and violence are connected, Sessions is all turned around about why.

Talking about violence and states with legalized pot, Sessions said that pot and violence are connected because "You can't sue somebody for a drug debt. The only way to get your money is through strong-arm tactics, and violence tends to follow that."

If you're talking about "The Godfather," that statement holds some water. But if you're talking about legal marijuana at the state level, it's odd. Because, in legal states such as Colorado, marijuana disputes don't result in strong-arm tactics; they end up in court.

"Marijuana businesses resolve conflicts in court just like in any other industry," Carl Werner, an attorney at Vicente Sederberg, a Denver law firm specializing in marijuana law, says via email.

Colorado's courts first started resolving marijuana conflicts in 2012, the Cannabis Law Journal says. Since then, for example, Colorado consumers filed a class-action lawsuit against a pot shop for using a pesticide, and a company sued a former employee for, essentially, stepping in on their turf and trying to "wrest control of the business" selling $175,000 worth of edible candies a week. In Oregon, folks opening a pot shop sued each other after the business crumbled, and a California company sued a Washington company when they both put out concentrates called "The Clear." 

The world of legal pot does not have a violence problem, period. 

"A greater concern is that violence will be used outside regulated marijuana markets among criminals who can’t take their dispute to a court," Werner, the lawyer, says by email.

But Sessions keeps going, saying today that "crime does follow drugs." He'd be more correct if he said that "crime follows Drug Wars." There's lots of crime in Mexico and Columbia, which have robust drug wars, but not in the Netherlands and Portugal, which decriminalized many drugs.

Sessions has been making even more mistakes when talking about the connection between marijuana and health today. This morning, Sessions said "I’m not sure we’re going to be a better, healthier nation if we have marijuana being sold at every corner grocery store.” Nevermind that the states with marijuana at every corner grocery store are also some of the healthiest states. Sessions ridiculed the well-known idea that pot curbs opiate abuse. "Give me a break," he said. Connecting the two, he said, is "a desperate attempt to defend the harmlessness of marijuana or even its benefits. I doubt that's true. Maybe science will prove I'm wrong.” White House press secretary Sean Spicer also used the opioid crisis as an excuse for marijuana prohibition.

In fact, the facts go against both Sessions and Spicer. Studies have found that states with medical marijuana laws had about 25 percent fewer opioid overdose deaths during the 2000's, that medical marijuana reduces opioid addictions, and that patients in states with medical marijuana used fewer painkillers of all kinds, which saved the government money.

The marijuana industry, in contrast, rightly sees cannabis as a "promising option for the opioid crisis." "If the attorney general really cares about public health and safety, he’ll stop relying on ‘alternative facts," said Tom Angell, chairman of drug policy reform group Marijuana Majority.

Will that happen? A lifelong Drug Warrior, Sessions sees pot through his own biased worldview. He's said, "Good people don't smoke marijuana," and said he was proud of his efforts, during his life, to "create a hostility to drug use."

Now that he's powerful, Sessions is bringing that old hostility with him. He can ruin lives and economies and cause more violence by changing drug policy. If he's going to go down that road, he should at least learn the law and the science surrounding it first.