April 20 is the when reporters and columnists everywhere bust out their lamest pot jokes to note what has become a new quasi-holiday devoted to advocacy for marijuana legalization. And some new polls show just how strong that movement is becoming.
A CBS poll out today shows that 61 percent of Americans favor full legalization, the highest number the poll has recorded, while a Quinnipiac poll puts the number at 60 percent, with an incredible 94 percent saying people ought to be able to get it if their doctors prescribe it (CBS put that figure at 88 percent). Perhaps more important, 71 percent in the CBS poll and 73 percent in the Quinnipiac poll said that the federal government should leave states that have legalized it alone.
But there’s one person who doesn’t agree, and he happens to be the chief law enforcement officer of the U.S. government. In fact, if there’s a single thing that Attorney General Jeff Sessions hates more than undocumented immigrants it might just be marijuana, which is why he appears to be planning what amounts to a return to a 1980s-style War on Drugs. We don’t yet know what practical steps Sessions will take, because things are still in the planning stages. But allow me to suggest that in the end, Sessions might actually accelerate the country’s move toward the eventual goal of full legalization.
When it comes to cannabis, the attorney general is old school. His views seem to be ripped right from “ Reefer Madness ,” with dark warnings about how the evil weed will fry your brain like an egg (and who knows, maybe make you start listening to that crazy jazz music). Here’s an excerpt of a speech he gave last month:
“I realize this may be an unfashionable belief in a time of growing tolerance of drug use. But too many lives are at stake to worry about being fashionable. I reject the idea that America will be a better place if marijuana is sold in every corner store. And I am astonished to hear people suggest that we can solve our heroin crisis by legalizing marijuana - so people can trade one life-wrecking dependency for another that’s only slightly less awful. Our nation needs to say clearly once again that using drugs will destroy your life. “
When Sessions was under consideration for a federal judgeship in 1986, a witness testified that he had heard Sessions say that he thought the Ku Klux Klan “was okay until I found out they smoked pot.” Even if that might have just been a tasteless joke, Sessions has made clear that he still believes that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.”
But the big unanswered question is how the attorney general will approach the states that have passed some form of legalization. He could follow the (mostly) hands-off approach that the Obama administration did. Or he could send out federal agents to start shutting down dispensaries across the country. Or he could do something in between. But given his strong views and the fact that marijuana is still illegal under federal law - which gives him substantial power to go after the burgeoning pot industry in states that have legalized it - it’s hard to believe there isn’t some kind of crackdown coming from the Justice Department.
Sessions may already be having a deterrent effect. The Colorado legislature was all set to pass a law regulating marijuana clubs, but backed off after the governor warned that doing so could incur Sessions’ wrath. But in other places, the movement toward legalization continues. Just yesterday, West Virginia’s governor signed a law passed by the legislature to create a medical marijuana system in the state.
Which means that if and when he attacks legal marijuana, Sessions will be going after a movement with extraordinary momentum. And it’s not just the opinion polls, it’s also what’s happening at the ballot box. In 2016, marijuana initiatives were on the ballot in nine states, and won in eight of them. California, Massachusetts, Maine and Nevada legalized marijuana for recreational use, while Arkansas, Florida, Montana and North Dakota passed medical marijuana initiatives. Only Arizona’s recreational measure was narrowly defeated.
As of now, there are eight states that have legalized recreational marijuana, and 21 more states and Washington, D.C. that have some kind of medical legalization in place. Sixty-eight million Americans live in the recreational marijuana states, and another 133 million live in the medical marijuana states, for a total of over 200 million Americans, or over three-fifths of the population.
And no one on either side of this issue thinks those numbers are going to go anywhere but up. While it’s still early, Ballotpedia has tracked proposed marijuana initiatives in 12 states that are planned for 2017 or 2018. Some may never make the ballot, but any initiative that does stands a strong chance of passing, even in conservative states. In many other states, lawmakers have proposed bills that would legalize cannabis for recreational or medical use.
So consider this scenario. Sessions initiates some kind of new War on Weed, one that results in lots of splashy headlines, dramatic video of state-licensed businesses being shut down, and thoughtful debates about the proper balance between federal and state power. Then the backlash begins. Even many Republicans express their dismay at the Justice Department’s heavy-handed actions. Pressure builds on President Donald Trump (whose comments on the topic have been mostly vague and non-committal) to rein Sessions in. The controversy energizes cannabis advocates and the voters who agree with them. More and more candidates come out in favor of legalization, or at least a new federal law that would remove the drug from Schedule 1 (which puts it in the same category as heroin or cocaine) and leave it up to states to decide how to handle it without any federal interference.
Then in 2020, we see the first major-party nominee who advocates full legalization of marijuana.
That last part might not happen three years from now (though some past and future nominees have already sponsored bills to allow medical use). But it will eventually, because politicians inevitably follow where the public has moved.
Most of them do, anyway. But on this issue, Jeff Sessions is not such a politician - he’s going to pursue that demon weed no matter what the public thinks. But we all know where America is heading on this issue, and Sessions may end up pushing us there just a little faster.
Paul Waldman is a contributor to The Washington Post’s Plum Line blog, and a senior writer at The American Prospect.