Most Americans who dislike the Ku Klux Klan oppose the white supremacist group's hatred of other races. But not Jeff Sessions, the Alabama Senator who has been tabbed by President-elect Donald Trump for attorney general. The KKK fell out of favor with Sessions when he found out some of them smoked marijuana.
The story came out 30 years ago when President Ronald Reagan nominated Sessions as federal district judge for Alabama. As the Senate Judiciary Committee vetted the 39-year-old lawyer, they uncovered allegations that he had made several racist remarks while serving as U.S. attorney in Mobile, Alabama.
One of his strangest comments: he thought the Ku Klux Klan "were OK until I found out they smoked pot." Sessions apologized for making that remark, but that wasn't enough to convince the committee. His nomination was rejected.
Afterward, he became attorney general of Alabama and then clinched one of the state's senate seats, which he has held since 1997. During Trump's campaign for president, Sessions helped craft Trump's stance on immigration - including his pledge to deport illegal immigrants and to impose a moratorium on Muslims entering the country.
So civil rights activists have reason to be concerned with Trump's pick for attorney general.
And so do cannabis activists. Sessions apologized for his remark about the KKK, but his hatred of marijuana is as fervent as ever. That's a huge problem because as attorney general, Sessions would have the power to enforce federal cannabis prohibition unless Trump specifically orders him not to.
Right now, medical marijuana is legal in 29 states - more than half the country - and recreational cannabis has been legalized in eight states, plus Washington, D.C. But the federal government still prohibits medicinal and recreational use, so those legal states operate in a gray area. Those states and members of their cannabis industries are vulnerable to DEA raids and litigation if the next attorney general decides to enforce federal laws.
And Sessions has an appetite for doing just that. The senator is so backward on marijuana reform that he doesn't even want people talking about it.
“You can't have the President of the United States of America talking about marijuana," Sessions said during a Senate meeting last March. "You are sending a message to young people that there is no danger in this process. It is false that marijuana use doesn't lead people to more drug use. It is already causing a disturbance in the States that have made it legal.”
Sessions is basically a talking time-capsule of the 1970s War on Drugs. The notion that marijuana leads people to abuse harder drugs has been debunked. And despite fears that loosening drug laws would increase consumption, states like Colorado haven't seen a spike in drug use following legalization.
But he isn't budging on the issue. Recently, he hosted a Senate hearing on marijuana that the Drug Policy Alliance dubbed a prohibitionist party. At the hearing, Sessions presented prohibition as a moral crusade, not just a matter of public health and criminal justice.
He called on his colleagues to spread the message "that this drug is dangerous, you cannot play with it, it is not funny, it's not something to laugh about... and to send that message with clarity that good people don't smoke marijuana."
Will he be confirmed by the Senate?
But if history repeats itself, Sessions might not get a chance to do the job. He has already been rejected once in his political career by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Back in 1986, the Republicans held a 53-47 majority in the Senate. So Reagan's own party rejected the the appointment of Sessions. Since then, he has butted heads with Republican colleagues on many issues, including policies regarding ethnic minorities.
It's unlikely that the next Senate Judiciary Committee would reject Sessions based on his cannabis stance, but his position on race could once again rally opposition within his own party.
In the meantime, cannabis advocates are calling on Trump to reassure medical marijuana patients that the appointment of Sessions won't jeopardize their health.
The medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access is worried about the senator's candidacy for attorney general. "[T]he nomination of Jeff Sessions as the next attorney general of the United States is a tremendous cause for concern to medical cannabis patients and their families," said executive director Steph Sherer in a press release.
“President-elect Trump needs to reassure the more than 300 million Americans living under some sort of medical cannabis law that his attorney general will honor his campaign pledge to respect state medical cannabis programs," said Sherer.
"[M]edical cannabis is a critical therapy used by millions of patients to alleviate symptoms of epilepsy, chemotherapy, HIV/AIDS, chronic pain, and more," Sherer added. “We urge President-elect Trump to continue his support for medical cannabis by encouraging Sessions to act in the best interest of medical cannabis users nationwide and respect state medical cannabis programs.”
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