Attorney General Jeff Sessions declined to endorse the idea of using organized crime statutes to demolish the nascent legal cannabis industry on Thursday, under aggressive questioning from conservative radio darling Hugh Hewitt.
“I don’t know that one prosecution would be quite as effective as that,” Sessions said, after Hewitt suggested his office could use the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) to take down the entire multi-billion-dollar industry of legal cannabis for adult recreational use.
Hewitt’s not wrong that a RICO case could be hugely disruptive to the lucrative new industry. Attempts at taking down the cannabis industry using federal courts are a lively cottage industry of their own these days, as The Cannabist notes.
But Sessions, a strong opponent of marijuana use and decriminalization for decades, was not objecting to the spirit of Hewitt’s proposal so much as its tactics.
“I do not believe there’s any argument [that] because a state legalized marijuana that the federal law against marijuana is no longer in existence,” Sessions said. “I do believe that the federal laws clearly are in effect in all 50 states. And we will do our best to enforce the laws as we’re required to do so.”
Earlier in the week, polling indicated that Americans’ support for cannabis legalization has continued to climb to new heights. A full 64 percent of respondents to Gallup’s latest poll said they support ending prohibition of the plant — the largest share of the populace in Gallup’s 50 years of work on the question.
The losing politics of pot may, as much as anything else, be driving Sessions’ failure to make good on his reputation as a harsh opponent of the flower and its fans. He’s also lost at least one likely ally among President Donald Trump’s team, after fellow pot critic Rep. Tom Marino (R-PA) withdrew his name from consideration to be drug czar over his role in crafting laws that make it harder for the Drug Enforcement Agency to combat opioid trafficking.
The Department of Justice has yet to unveil any formal change to policy regarding state-level recreational cannabis legalization. That’s left policies set under Sessions’ predecessors in effect. States like Colorado, Oregon, and Washington, where the legal cannabis marketplace is thriving, are largely left alone by federal law enforcement despite the contradiction between systems voters created there and the federal criminal code’s ongoing treatment of cannabis as a dangerous narcotic.
While a senator, Sessions repeatedly made clear he is unmoved by the myriad arguments — economic, social, and medical — for cannabis prohibition to end. In a nearly forty-year public career, he’s said that anyone who smokes pot is a bad person, joked that he thought the KKK were alright until he learned they liked weed, and suggested that habitual marijuana use is just as grave a human tragedy as heroin addiction.
As ardent a drug warrior as can still be found in public life, Sessions was never expected to be a champion for the federalist experiment with legalization that’s brought billions of dollars, tens of thousands of jobs, and jolted economic growth to the states pioneering the “green rush.” But compared to the sweeping crackdown many observers expected from him when he was nominated, his decision to thus far allow the status quo to remain intact looks almost like benevolence.
Many drug industry observers celebrated in August when Sessions’ own deadline for a report from the marijuana policy task force he convened passed quietly, without his office releasing anything — and with multiple reports that the radio silence was owed to the group taking a sanguine view of legalization that defied Sessions’ personal convictions.
But there is good reason, separate from Thursday’s wait-and-see comments to Hewitt, to believe Sessions is still working to build a case for going after legal pot.
Back in February, Sessions reiterated his belief that marijuana use drives violent crime. Violent crime is down in legalization states — exactly the outcome economics, medicine, and criminology experts predict from bringing taxes, regulations, and cash registers into a commodity market once restricted to black-market transactions between profit-motivated people who know the only thing ensuring a deal gets done is the threat of retributive violence.
In June, he asked Congress to help him go after even medical cannabis dispensaries and patients.
Later in the summer, Sessions fired off warning-shot letters to elected leaders in four legalization states. The missives demanded data on how legally-grown pot might be leaking into other states where it remained illegal, among other lines of criminal inquiry. In the most egregious example, Sessions’ letter to Oregon officials cited an alarming study from the state police purporting to show significant amounts of pot spilling ending up in the black market.
The report, however, was bogus — something already well established by the head of the Oregon state troopers well before Sessions sent his letter. “Unfortunately, you sourced the same leaked draft document as evidence against Oregon’s marijuana regulatory structure,” Oregon State Police Superintendent Travis Hampton wrote to Sessions in August.
The Oregon example had seemed, based on the shoddy, leaked report Sessions continued to cite this summer, like a potential headshot for legalization states. The conflict between federal narcotics law and state legalization is real and unresolved. With the right evidence and the right arguments, an anti-pot crusader in federal law enforcement could at very least undermine the economic boom that’s drawn more and more states to legalize pot at the ballot box. A case like the Oregon one — or the RICO takedown Hewitt fantasized about Thursday — would at least chill the expansion of legalization to other states politically, and could potentially even set up a Supreme Court showdown states might lose.
But despite having been rebuffed in Oregon by stubborn facts, and without sharing Hewitt’s belief that a single well-worked RICO could destroy an industry that’s growing at unheard-of rates for the business world, Sessions still teased that some kind of action could be on the horizon.
“I can’t comment on the existence of an investigation at this time, Hugh, you know that,” the Attorney General said Thursday. “But I hear you. You’re making a suggestion. I hear it.”