Consensus is hard to come by these days, but there is one on mass incarceration in this country. We imprison more of our population than any other country in the world, at a ridiculously high human and monetary cost, and a quarter of our inmates are there on drug charges.
A recent American Civil Liberties Union poll found that 83 percent of Republicans, 92 percent of independents and 94 percent of Democrats support prosecutorial reform and want to see district attorneys push harder for alternatives to prison.
There’s also a growing consensus on legalizing marijuana, with 51 percent of Republicans, 67 percent of independents and 72 percent of Democrats in favor it, according to Gallup. That’s up 9 points overall in just a year.
Yet somehow, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has apparently concluded that what the country really needs is even more Americans behind bars for low-level drug charges.
That’s the result of what a Justice Department memo issued on Thursday called “a return to the rule of law and the rescission of previous guidance documents” on “the cultivation, distribution and possession of marijuana.”
Sessions, who said in a Senate hearing in 2016 that “good people don’t smoke marijuana,” had already reversed the advice of his predecessor, Eric Holder, to federal prosecutors. Holder had cautioned them against seeking long sentences for minor drug offenses, but Sessions asked that they seek the longest possible sentences.
Now he’s also specifically reversed course on legal pot.
Under President Barack Obama, states could choose to legalize marijuana, and federal authorities stopped prosecuting such cases in states that had done so. Given other law-enforcement priorities, that made sense.
The new rule undoes all that and gives federal prosecutors the final say on how to handle state laws that conflict with the federal prohibition.
Which is not only out-of-step with public opinion, but also with long-standing GOP arguments on how important it is to respect states’ rights.
The timing of the change is also perverse: Sessions announced it right after a California law legalizing it for recreational use went into effect.
Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, where pot was legalized in 2014 — making the state more than $500 million in tax revenue as of last summer — was one of several Republican lawmakers who reacted angrily.
He tweeted that, “This reported action directly contradicts what Attorney General Sessions told me prior to his confirmation. With no prior notice to Congress, the Justice Department has trampled on the will of the voters in CO and other states.”
Gardner also noted that said as a candidate, Trump had been right to say that whether or not to legalize should be left up to the states. And he promised to fight the change, if necessary by blocking the confirmation of Trump nominees to Justice.
Meanwhile, there’s considerable confusion about what happens now, or how the use of medicinal marijuana might be affected.
But again, the public is not confused. Though Sessions has compared pot to heroin, polling shows two-thirds of Americans see medicinal marijuana use as a far safer alternative to opioids as a way to manage pain.
Policy based on Sessions’ personal feelings to the contrary will cost us more, send more people to jail and continue racial inequities, too. (Though white and black Americans use drugs at comparable rates, African Americans are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested on a drug charge.) It’s also likely to worsen the already serious problem of opioid abuse.