If the federal government cracks down on states that have legalized recreational marijuana, don't blame Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Blame Congress.
Yes, Sessions deserves the flack he gets for his outdated views on marijuana, which he says is "only slightly less awful" than heroin. And yes, he is the one pushing to enforce federal cannabis prohibition in California, Colorado and other states that have legalized recreational marijuana. But we can't lose sight of the fact that Sessions is merely a symptom of a larger problem on Capitol Hill.
Sessions didn't invent marijuana prohibition or the War on Drugs. He's just trying to enforce the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), which became law in 1970 — nearly half a century before Sessions became attorney general in 2017. Congress is responsible for passing and upholding the CSA, which defines marijuana as a substance that supposedly has no medical benefit and is as dangerous as heroin.
As of today, 30 states have voiced their disagreement with the CSA's definition by legalizing medical marijuana, and 8 of them also allow recreational cannabis. Yet federal prohibition remains in effect because Congress hasn't updated the nation's drug laws to keep pace with states that have successfully experimented with marijuana reform.
And Congress didn't do anything to protect those states when the position of attorney general fell to Sessions. The same Sessions who once said he thought the Ku Klux Klan were okay till he found out they smoked pot. So Congresspeople can't say they were caught off guard by his anti-cannabis stance. Trump basically appointed a fox as night watchman at the henhouse, and Congress did nothing to protect the chickens.
Even worse, they still aren't taking action on the issue. While Representative Ted Lieu (D-CA), Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO) and other lawmakers have criticized Sessions' push to prosecute states that defy federal marijuana prohibition, they haven't changed the laws that make such a crackdown possible. And it doesn't look like they will do anything given recent remarks from Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), a prominent member of the Cannabis Caucus in Congress.
When recently asked if he would support bills to legalize medical marijuana or medical as well as recreational, Rep. Rohrabacher's response wasn't encouraging.
"No, what I would support is that we leave this issue up to the states," he told Fox News last week.
That's why Rohrabacher introduced the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act of 2017, which would legally protect the rights of states to repeal marijuana prohibition in their jurisdictions. But like most cannabis bills that have been introduced to Congress over the years, it has stalled in committee. So Rohrabacher's bill is little more than lip service.
Of course, Rohrabacher also introduced an amendment to the federal budget that prevents the DEA from spending a cent on enforcing cannabis prohibition in states that have legalized marijuana. But Congress has to renew that amendment with every budget, which means it could be gone as early as January 19, when the next spending bill is due. And that would please Sessions very much since he's been lobbying Congress to ditch the amendment, meaning it would be open season on medical marijuana states.
But instead of getting mad at Sessions, lawmakers like Rohrabacher and Gardner should vent their aggravation on their colleagues on Capital Hill for not taking action on the cannabis issue. All Sessions has done is expose how vulnerable the cannabis sector is thanks to Congress.
Marijuana is a multi-billion dollar industry that creates thousands of jobs, revitalizes state infrastructure through tax revenues, saves lives by offering a safer alternative to the prescription pills that are fuelling the nation's opioid epidemic, and serves an estimated 2.3 million patients in America. Yet federal lawmakers have offered little more than flimsy guidelines and amendments to protect the industry.
It's time for Congress to stop pointing fingers and start changing laws.