The decision by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to rescind the 2013 “Cole Memorandum,” which gave states a green light to move forward with marijuana legalization while preserving the ability to enforce federal marijuana laws, threatens to revive a set of Nixonian ‘drug war’ policies that utterly failed to reduce substance abuse.
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people,” said former Nixon domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman, according to a 22-year-old interview published by Harper’s Magazine in 2016.
Not only was the war on drugs was created as a tool to disrupt and persecute Nixon’s political adversaries but it completely failed to stop heroin addiction or the use of marijuana and hallucinogens.
The Cole Memo allowed states to move forward with marijuana legalization without fear of federal intrusion, but the Trump administration is more interested in sounding ‘tough on crime’ than it is focused on facts.
Although the approval rates for marijuana legalization are at an all-time high nationally – with nearly two-thirds of Americans supporting legalization, including a majority of Republicans – Sessions’ action may have implications for communities that have been advocating for and passing legislation decriminalizing marijuana use.
The new Department of Justice edict may have a chilling effect on future marijuana law reforms in New Jersey and elsewhere.
Democratic state Sen. Nicholas Scutari proposed a bill that would permit people aged 21 and older to possess up to one ounce of marijuana, 16 ounces of marijuana-infused products in solids, 72 ounces in liquid form and 7 grams of concentrate.
Scutari’s legislation would prohibit home cultivation, create a Division of Marijuana Enforcement, and establish a sales tax on marijuana from 7 percent to 25 percent over five years.
Nine states have made marijuana legal for adults, and some local governments have acted to relax sanctions on pot.
In October 2017, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed signed into law an ordinance that allowed for the reclassification of marijuana under an ounce to become a non-criminal, ticketable offense. The Atlanta decriminalization ordinance is a prime example of cities taking matters into their own hands, without the fear of federal oversight.
This Atlanta strategy had the potential to be the new normal going forward.
More than 90 percent of law enforcement in the U.S. is carried out at the state and local level.
The federal government has neither the political support nor the resources to enforce marijuana laws while performing more important functions related to national security, justice or insuring freedom and domestic tranquility.
Continued marijuana prohibition, however, threatens to continue to systemic oppression of racial minorities.
For example, Vermont Governor Phil Scott signed legislation this week allowing adults 21 and over to possess up to one ounce of marijuana, and to cultivate up to two mature and four immature cannabis plants.
On the other side of the country in Cartersville, GA, at least 63 people, mostly Black, were arrested on suspicion of possessing less than an ounce of marijuana at a New Year’s Eve house party.
As states begin legalizing marijuana, drug war racial disparities persist.
People living in states that have legalized – particularly those in positions of power, who have the resources to resist federal government interventions – will fight back against draconian drug laws. While people in states that still criminalize marijuana use will be forced to fall in line.
Unfortunately for Georgians and those living in rural areas throughout the Deep South, drug possession is the single most arrestable offense in the U.S., and Black and Brown people are arrested, convicted, and sentenced at unequally high rates.
Marijuana represents by far the largest share of those arrests, meaning that people in one of the eight legal marijuana states may profit from manufacturing and selling marijuana while people in other states, especially people of color, are arrested and sentenced to harsh terms of imprisonment for merely possessing marijuana.
The consequences of these harsh policies have been devastating for millions of individuals, their families, and communities.
By rescinding the Cole Memo, Sessions may encourage states to maintain the status quo regarding marijuana, which will result in the unnecessary arrest and incarceration of hundreds of Americans for using a drug that is legal in other states.
“Make no mistake, more families will be destroyed by this change in policy,” says Georgia State Representative Renitta Shannon. “With the Cole Memo AG Sessions is both out of step with everyday Americans who want to see an end to the harmful prosecutions for nonviolent drug offenses, and out of step with his own Republican Party that rails against big government superseding states’ rights.”
As legislators on both sides of the issue debate alterations in marijuana policy, what is painfully clear is that the failed drug war is not over.
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