On Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions told reporters in Washington, D.C. that possession of marijuana, even in small amounts, “remains a violation of federal law” and stated that he is still considering whether or not to crack down on marijuana possession.
Under the Obama administration, the Justice Department called for federal prosecutions of marijuana possession to occur only in cases involving gangs and organized crime, distribution to minors, sales across state borders, and the cultivation of marijuana plants on federal land.
Sessions has a well-deserved reputation for being hostile to cannabis and making sweeping associations between the drug and crime despite the fact that marijuana use has been correlated with reduced opioid deaths. And it’s worth noting that his disdain for the drug, which seems to be largely rooted in dated propaganda from the War on Drug’s nascence, appears to intersect with his hostility toward civil rights and overt racism.
On top of his long history of racially insensitive comments and opposition to civil rights groups like the NAACP and American Civil Liberties Union, Sessions once joked that his only opposition to the Ku Klux Klan was its use of marijuana. In 1986, Sessions openly agreed with accusations that a white civil rights lawyer was a “traitor to his race,” stating, “well, maybe he is,” when asked for comment. The entirety of his legal career is tainted with accusations from colleagues that he has repeatedly used the N-word and called an African-American lawyer “boy” after telling him to “be careful what you say to white folk.” And as a lawmaker, Sessions has vehemently opposed voting rights legislation crucial to enfranchising people of color and removing restrictions on their ability to participate in politics.
A crackdown on marijuana possession would disproportionately harm communities of color and low-income Americans, and not because they use the drug at higher rates than white, affluent communities. According to federal data, these communities appear to use cannabis at roughly equal rates, but racially charged, prejudiced policing results in more arrests in poor communities of color, thereby contributing not only to the United States’ unparalleled, high rates of mass incarceration, but also to a disproportionate ethnic breakdown in our incarceration system, skewed to target marginalized people.
It’s no coincidence that Sessions is considering authorizing this, given his deeply racist track record. It is far more likely that his reason for committing the Justice Department to the War on Drugs would be to target people of color, which would continue his long history of actively working to disenfranchise marginalized people, particularly African Americans. After all, in the words of a top aide of President Nixon, who initiated the War on Drugs in the early 1970s, the vehemently anti-drug campaign was initiated from the start to subjugate “the blacks.” Trump’s appointment of Sessions, given Sessions’ record on civil rights and vendetta against legal weed, makes clear that the War isn’t going anywhere—nor is the fervently racist intent that underlies it.
America has just 4.4% of the world’s population but has roughly 22 percent of the world’s prisoners according to the International Centre for Prison Studies. And according to statistics issued by Department of Justice in 2013, while only 8% of federal prisoners were sentenced for violent crimes, 48% were sentenced for nonviolent drug crimes. A crackdown on policing for drug crimes would only produce an increase in this already alarming statistic. And as Michelle Alexander notes in The New Jim Crow, police departments are financially motivated to monitor poor neighborhoods of color.
Sessions is still weighing whether or not to authorize new policies for marijuana possession, but in the event that he does mandate a crackdown, as would be within his power, the pervasive issues of mass incarceration and racist policing would only be exacerbated. And what’s more, lack of access to rehabilitation, welfare, housing, and employment due to discrimination on the basis of criminal history contributes to high relapse rates for inmates. This creates a problem that goes beyond mass incarceration.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has previously stated that Sessions will adhere to President Trump’s policies on marijuana, and while Trump does not seem nearly as zealous as Sessions in his stance against recreational marijuana, their opposition hardly bodes well for marginalized communities across the country.