President-elect Donald Trump’s nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., to be attorney general of the United States rightly has proponents of marijuana legalization troubled.
Sessions, who at an April congressional hearing remarked that “good people don’t smoke marijuana,” and joked in the past that he thought members of the Ku Klux Klan were “OK until I found out they smoked pot,” is a hard-line drug warrior at a time when most of the nation has signaled a willingness to permit marijuana use.
Recent public opinion polls have shown a majority of Americans support legalization, including polls conducted by Gallup and Pew Research finding 60 percent and 57 percent in support, respectively. An additional Gallup poll reported 13 percent of American adults identify as current marijuana users — bad people, according to Sessions — and 43 percent of adults have tried marijuana in their lifetimes.
While concerns over the abuse of marijuana, or any substance for that matter, are perfectly valid, it is clear that growing numbers of Americans are no longer convinced that prohibition and criminalization are justifiable approaches to the issue.
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In fact, we now live in a nation where 29 states, plus the District of Columbia, have legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes, and eight states plus the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for recreational purposes, despite marijuana officially being illegal under federal law.
On Election Day, four states — California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada — voted to legalize recreational marijuana. An additional three states — Arkansas, Florida and North Dakota — voted to allow medical marijuana in their respective jurisdictions, while Montana voters approved a measure better facilitating access to medical marijuana.
Under the Obama administration, the Department of Justice has effectively taken a hands-off approach, allowing states to try their own approaches to marijuana policy. But marijuana remains a Schedule I drug, illegal under federal law for medicinal or recreational use and distribution.
Going on his record and past statements, the prospects of a hands-off approach to marijuana under a Sessions-led DOJ seem dim. “We need grown-ups in charge in Washington saying marijuana is not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized, it ought to be minimized, that it is in fact a very real danger,” said Sessions at a hearing in April.
If there’s any room for optimism, it comes from statements made by Donald Trump throughout his campaign. “In terms of marijuana and legalization, I think that should be a state issue, state-by-state,” he said to The Washington Post last year. He later told talk show host Bill O’Reilly that he is “a hundred percent” in support of medical marijuana.
We completely agree with these stances from Trump. Allowing states increased freedom to experiment with differing approaches to complex problems is often desirable, and this is certainly the case with respect to marijuana.
Ideally, Congress should consider removing marijuana from the federal drug scheduling system entirely to remove any ambiguity about the legal status of marijuana. Short of that, a continuation of the current hands-off policy from the DOJ makes more sense than going against the wishes of the vast majority of Americans.