Marijuana ‘only slightly less awful’ than getting hooked on heroin, Sessions says

Reefer madness today, reefer madness tomorrow, reefer madness forever.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions addresses reporters in Virginia on Wednesday. CREDIT: AP Photo/Steve Helber

Marijuana users and heroin addicts are basically the same, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Wednesday in Richmond, Virginia.

“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,” said Sessions. He went on to call for a revival of hardline ’80s- and ‘90s-style “educating people and telling them the terrible truth about drugs.”

“Our nation needs to say clearly once again that using drugs will destroy your life,” Sessions said.

For someone on a bar stool arguing with his friends, this would be a stupid but harmless “hot take.” But for the top law enforcement official in a nation of 320 million people, it’s a malicious string of lies intended to justify dangerous policies.

Sessions’ mockery of the idea that marijuana could help people struggling with opiate addiction is especially frustrating to Steve Miller, who retired as a sergeant after 18 years on a suburban Detroit police force and now works as a private investigator at a lawfirm specializing in medical marijuana cases.

“He’s out of reality in that statement. Marijuana has proven to be very beneficial medically for people. And there are studies coming out now showing it is helping people get off their opiate and heroin addictions, and showing it helps kick alcohol addiction as well,” Miller, one of many law enforcement professionals who advocates to end marijuana prohibition, told ThinkProgress. “I don’t know where his medical training comes from that he makes these statements.”

The idea that routine marijuana use is a “life-wrecking dependency…only slightly less awful” than heroin addiction is also medically absurd. Once chemically dependent upon heroin, the human body will tear itself apart if forcibly deprived of the drug. A heroin addict pursuing her next hit or pill is fleeing hours and hours of vomiting, diarrhea, and muscle pain. Someone deprived of their nightly joint might be a little cranky, a little on edge, a little less hungry the next day when they get up and go to work.

Beyond the medical fallacy of Sessions’ comparison, Miller said the suggestion also warps the realities of police work on the front lines.

“Alcohol was the cause of the great majority of problems I responded to as a police officer,” he said. “I can honestly say that marijuana was never the cause of any criminal complaint I responded to or handled, in 20 years of policing.”

Indeed, Miller remembers pot law getting in the way of real policework during his years on the job. Out responding to a domestic dispute call one day, he and his partner took the man involved into a separate room to talk about what had happened. His partner spotted a pot plant on a shelf, and Miller’s role in that family’s life shifted instantly.

“Now we’ve taken the focus off this domestic, where we’re trying to investigate whether a physical assault of a human being occurred and figure out how to handle that, and we’ve put the focus on a marijuana plant,” Miller said. “It was almost like at that moment, the DV investigation was off. Now we’re on this other thing, we’re arresting this guy for the plant. I’m sure that really helped his home situation.”

Sessions’ belief that marijuana is dangerous is one thing. His insistence on restoring the old just-say-no approach to talking to the public about drugs in general is another serious concern.

Sessions is right that drug use rates declined in general in 1980s and 1990s, though sociologists had predicted that would happen regardless of what the government did. Post-Baby Boom demographic aging meant there would be fewer 18- to 25-year-olds over those decades, thus reducing the population that is most prone to drug use.

The decline, such as it was, did not stem from the government telling people that drugs are bad. Teenagers who participated in Drug Awareness Resistance Education — the once-ubiquitous “D.A.R.E.” seminars, with their sassy t-shirts and red-lettered cop cars — “were just as likely to use drugs as were those who received no intervention” according to 20 different studies of the program, Scientific American explained in 2014.

Teenage drug use rates did indeed decline in Gallup’s polling, dropping nearly in half for marijuana and by smaller shares for harder drugs from 1981 to 1999. But adults reported using marijuana at the same rate in 1999 as they had at the dawn of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign.

The persistent, moderate rate of cannabis use for recreational purposes is, in Sessions’ telling, evidence of some moral stain upon the national character.

But consider the day-to-day realities of life in the 53.5 million American households surviving on less than $41,000 a year. Many of these householders are working more than one low-wage job, scrambling between workplaces and school pickups and doctor visits on a budget too threadbare to allow vacations, camping trips, or even routine nights out for a restaurant dinner and a movie.

For some of those who live every day at the brink of an economic precipice, marijuana is a low-impact source of stress relief, R&R, and plain old fun — and one that lets them get up when the alarm goes off the next day and they have to hop back onto the financial hamster wheel. (Marijuana is not the exclusive province of the poor or a universal presence in low-income life, of course, though use does skew toward lower-income groups.)

Sessions is saying that it’s impossible to use a drug recreationally or medicinally without becoming a slave to it. He’s invoking an image of glassy-eyed pot-cravers incapable of holding down a job, raising children, building meaningful emotional bonds with others, or bringing businesses or art or new technologies into the world.

Miller, who sometimes speaks about drug policy reform to local Rotary Clubs and the like, is familiar with the kind of intractable mythologizing of marijuana that the United States Attorney General is reviving today. But the experience doesn’t give him much hope for persuading such people.

“Some people are more comfortable believing the lies they have been told by their government for 80 years. You can blast people with science as much as you want, but they just don’t want to believe it,” he said.

“He’s entitled to his feelings. But don’t push that agenda on a public where 71 percent think it should be legal.”