While recreational marijuana companies remain in precarious territory under federal law, Congress has for years protected medicinal cannabis suppliers and patients from the boots and rifles of federal agents.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions is begging lawmakers to rescind that safe harbor for medical pot — and claiming that the very prescription painkiller epidemic that medicinal cannabis helps stunt should prompt the government to crack down on doctor-prescribed marijuana.
“I believe it would be unwise for Congress to restrict the discretion of the Department to fund particular prosecutions, particularly in the midst of an historic drug epidemic and potentially long-term uptick in violent crime,” Sessions wrote in a May letter to congressional leaders which was obtained Monday by marijuana legalization advocate Tom Angell. Its authenticity was confirmed Tuesday by the Washington Post.
At one point in the letter, Sessions cites a recent Colorado case where licensed medical marijuana distributors were caught moving cannabis out of the state — but those people have been indicted and face criminal charges in the state, undermining Sessions’ argument that the case necessitates federal assistance.
Congress has been “restrict[ing] the discretion,” in Sessions’ words, of federal law enforcement to hammer medical weed for three years. Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Sam Farr (D-CA) led a successful bipartisan push to attach language to congressional budgets prohibiting the Department of Justice from going after medicinal cannabis in states which have made the treatment legal.
Sessions invokes the opioid epidemic as a reason to shred the bipartisan consensus that medical cannabis ought to be left alone. But that is backwards: Research indicates that medical cannabis is a valuable resource in the fight against that wave of addiction and fatalities tied to heroin and its pharmaceutical cousins.
In states where medical weed is legal, the average doctor prescribes 1,826 fewer doses of prescription painkillers each year, economist David Bradford found in research published last summer in Health Affairs. “That translates into many millions [fewer] doses per year in those states,” Science noted. Similar research from University of Michigan doctors found a potential 64 percent decrease in opioid use among patients who are prescribed cannabis.
While the existing research is promising, findings remain limited — in large part because the absolutist prohibitions Sessions so adores in federal policy have made it all but impossible to conduct broad, thorough scientific research on cannabis for decades.
But even if the eye-popping hard evidence against Sessions’ proposal is limited in scale, it’s not hard to guess which class of pain medication poses the greater public health risk. Opioid and heroin overdoses kill tens of thousands of Americans per year. Zero people have died of a marijuana overdose, ever. Making it harder to get medical pot in states where lawmakers and voters have made it available will necessarily push more pain patients onto the rocky path of prescription drug use.
Sessions’ desire to keep the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment off this year’s budgets is predictable. The attorney general is an ardent drug warrior who once lamented in a 2016 hearing that state legalization has undone decades of public effort “to send that message with clarity that good people don’t smoke marijuana.” Decades earlier in his public service career, Sessions allegedly joked that he didn’t think the Ku Klux Klan were so bad “until I found out they smoked pot.”
In the intervening years, Sessions was a relentless opponent of any effort to relax laws around pot at either the state or federal level. His nomination as Attorney General was widely expected to herald a reversal of years of wait-and-see federal law enforcement policy toward populist efforts in the states to make recreational adult use of cannabis legal and profitable.
But until this week, it was less clear if Sessions’ pot crusade would also extend to medicinal flowers, pills, ointments, and edibles. It will — unless Congress stops him.