Photograph by Carlos Gracia
Dear Mr. President,
As far as your Cabinet picks go, there are few that have been more controversial than Attorney General Jeff Sessions. He has made numerous questionable statements, especially in regards to race and civil rights, over his 30 plus years working in government. Most of our country, especially your critics, are currently fixated on his testimony (including his inability to “recall” the answers to many straightforward questions) during his turn in the hot seat in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s hearings regarding Russian collusion before, and perhaps during, the 2016 presidential election. However, I am going to address another concern with Mr. Sessions, and I hope you will as well: his stance on the legalization and use of medical marijuana.
Attorney General Sessions has not hid his feelings about the use of marijuana (for recreational or medicinal purposes). Allegedly, he drafted a letter to congressional leaders, which requested their assistance in allowing federal prosecution against entities in states where the medicinal use of marijuana and its components has been legalized. I would assume you are already aware that marijuana is still classified as a Schedule 1 drug by the federal government, just like every other controlled substance. This puts cannabis and most of its derivatives in the same category as heroin and cocaine, and indicates there is a high potential for abuse and no medicinal value (which is incorrect, but we will get to that shortly). However, in 2014, the Rohrabacher–Farr amendment was signed into law. This amendment disallows the Justice Department from spending funds to hinder the enactment of state medical cannabis laws. So, in theory, the 29 states that have broad laws allowing some form of cannabis or its derivatives to be used for medicinal purposes, and the 15 states that have more narrow laws, should be allowed to proceed unencumbered.
In case you weren’t aware, Sessions would like to change all of that. In 1986, Thomas Figures, a black Assistant U.S. Attorney, attested that Sessions said he thought the Ku Klux Klan was, “OK until I found out they smoked pot.” Sessions later said that the comment was a joke (because the KKK is such a laughing matter), but did apologize for it, saying that he considered the Klan to be “a force for hatred and bigotry.” But, he didn’t do any backtracking on the “smoking pot” part, which shows how far back his pre-conceived notions go. In 2016, in response to then-President Obama’s assertion that cannabis is not as dangerous as alcohol, Sessions said he was “heartbroken” and that “…good people don’t smoke marijuana.” In his most recent letter, our current Attorney General cited “a historic drug epidemic” in our country as a justification to crack down on medical marijuana. To anyone with some actual knowledge on the subject, his comments are judgmental at best, and scientifically unsound and disproven at the worst.
Let’s start with the “historic drug epidemic” piece. Yes, there is a drug issue in our country, specifically with highly addictive opiates. In 2016, over 50,000 of our citizens died from opiate misuse/ overdoses. This total is comprised of people who died from street-drugs considered to be opiates, such as heroin (12,989 deaths); but it also includes deaths from legal prescription drugs, such as Oxycontin and Vicodin (17,536 deaths). As for alcohol, around 88,000 people die from alcohol related deaths annually. This includes alcohol-related driving accidents, as well as personal use. Mr. President, do you know how many people died from marijuana use…? Zero…which is the same number as the year before, and every year previous. So while Sessions may have been “heartbroken” by former President Obama’s comments regarding alcohol and marijuana, it turns out that Obama was correct. In addition, there is a growing body of research that shows that states that have legalized medical marijuana actually have a drop in opiate overdoses and deaths. Cannabis has also been used successfully in opiate replacement therapy and as a much safer method than prescription drugs, as it is not physically addictive.
Let’s move on to Sessions’ comment about how “good people don’t smoke pot.” I am going to venture a guess that Mr. Sessions would feel the same way about any kind of cannabis derivatives, such as CBD (or cannabidiol), which can have little to no intoxicating effects. When Charlotte Figi was 5 years-old, her family starting using CBD to treat some of her symptoms stemming from Dravet Syndrome (which causes seizures and developmental delays). Little Charlotte went from having over 300 seizures a week to only 1 or 2. In fact, medical marijuana has been used to successfully treat seizures in many children and adults. Then there is 42 year-old Leo Bridgewater, a veteran who suffered from PTSD, who has had success treating insomnia and severe anxiety, allowing him to return to a normal life. There is also Debbie Moreira, a woman in her 60s who has Autonomic Nerve Disorder. Her symptoms included shaking, weakness, and digestive issues. After treatment with medical cannabis, Debbie went from being bed-ridden to independent again, and now helps other seniors in her assisted living community. If Sessions would characterize any of these individuals as “bad,” I would be interested to see who he classifies as “good” (or even just “OK,” as he categorized the KKK). I could continue the list of ailments whose symptoms have been effectively lessened with medical marijuana, but then my letter would go on for a few more pages. The short-list includes multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, cancer/chemotherapy, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s.
Aside from the medical implications of reversing the Rohrabacher–Farr amendment, there are criminal elements to be discussed. According to the ACLU, marijuana arrests now account for over half of all drug arrests in the United States. Of the 8.2 million marijuana arrests between 2001 and 2010, 88% were for simply having marijuana. If you are truly worried about drug abuse in our nation, our law enforcement has clearly been chasing after users (not even dealers, or growers) of a fairly benign drug. The arrest data also revealed a very concerning trend. Despite roughly equal usage rates, blacks are 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana. To summarize, we are filling our jails and prisons with people who use a drug that has less negative impacts than legal drugs such as alcohol and prescription drugs. In fact, police make more arrests for marijuana possession alone than for all violent crimes combined.
So, if we are really looking to solve problems within our nation, especially connected to drug use, drug abuse, and a growing (and disproportionate) jail and prison population, I suggest you steer clear of your Attorney General’s suggestions. He appears to have very little actual knowledge on the topic and comes from a bygone era of the unsuccessful “War on Drugs.” From the statistics that I have shared, we can see how well that worked out.