Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ Opinions on Marijuana

Jeff Sessions Marijuana Quotes
Jeff Sessions' Marijuana Quotes from April 2016 Senate Hearing on Drugs.

Senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III has been confirmed in a 52-47 vote to become our next Attorney General. As head of the Department of Justice, Attorney General Sessions will rule over the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).

Here are some of Jeff Sessions comments concerning marijuana from over three decades:

1986

“Mr. Sessions purportedly said he had considered the Ku Klux Klan an acceptable organization until he learned that its members used marijuana.The story details how then-Senator Joe Biden derailed Mr. Sessions’ nomination for a federal judgeship because Mr. Sessions ”may have said something about the N.A.A.C.P. being un-American or Communist, but I meant no harm by it” and told one of his former black deputies to be careful about what he said “to white folks”. Mr. Sessions was rejected as too racist for the bench in 1986 – when you could still release mainstream comedies with a white actor in blackface.

1996

In 1996 as Alabama’s Attorney General, Jeff Sessions promoted a state bill to establish a mandatory death penalty for a second conviction for drug trafficking, including marijuana. According to The Huntsville Times, the bill had drawn “praise from Attorney General Jeff Sessions,” despite the fact that since 1987, mandatory death penalties had been declared unconstitutional. While Mr. Sessions promoted the bill as one that would target so-called drug kingpins, all the second-time marijuana trafficker would have needed to qualify for execution is to have made $4.25 an hour and managed five dealers.

During his confirmation hearings this year, Sen. Patrick Leahy noted that when it comes to marijuana, Sen. Sessions has “some very strong views,” noting his support for “the death penalty for anyone convicted of a second drug trafficking offense, including marijuana, even though mandatory death penalties are, of course, unconstitutional.”

Sen. Sessions played dumb and responded, “I’m not sure under what circumstances I said that. But I don’t think that sounds like something I would normally say. I will be glad to look at it.”

2014

In a Judiciary Committee hearing with Attorney General Eric Holder, Sen. Sessions interrogated him over President Obama’s remarks about marijuana use, insisting that it is a dangerous drug and even using the example of Lady Gaga to label it “addictive”:

Did the President make, conduct, any scientific survey before he waltzed into the New Yorker and opined contrary to the position of attorney generals [sic] and presidents universally prior to that that marijuana is not, as I’ve quoted him, did he study any of this data before he made that statement? …

Well, what about this study from the American Medical Association …. heavy cannabis use in adolescents causes persistent impairments in neurocognitive performance and IQ … Or this report from Northwestern University in December … found that marijuana users have abnormal brain structure and poor memory and that chronic marijuana use may lead to brain changes resembling schizophrenia.

Well, Lady Gaga said she is addicted to it and it is not harmless. She’s been been addicted to it. Patrick Kennedy*, former Congressman Kennedy, said the president is wrong on this subject. I just think it’s a huge issue. I hope that you will talk with the president, you’re close with him, and begin to push back, or pull back, on this position that I think is going to be adverse to the health of America.

* Note: Patrick Kennedy is the co-founder with Kevin Sabet of Project SAM, the nation’s leading anti-marijuana-legalization advocacy organization.

During a Judiciary Committee hearing where FBI Director James Comey was testifying, Sen. Sessions grilled him about the FBI relaxing its hiring policies to accept cyber-security experts who had previously smoked pot:

I was very disappointed in a Wall Street Journal article on May 20th in which you seem to make light of marijuana use by those who’d like to work for the FBI. You say “I’d have to hire a great workforce to compete with those cyber criminals and some of those kids who want to smoke weed on the way to the interview”. You say you’ve got to loosen up your no tolerance policy, which is just a three-year — haven’t used marijuana in three years. Do you understand that that could be interpreted as one more example of leadership in America dismissing the seriousness of marijuana use and that could undermine our ability to convince young people not to go down that dangerous path?

… I think you should understand your words can have ramifications out there. American Medical Association just last October said heavy cannabis use in adolescence causes persistent impairments in neurocognitive performance and IQ, and use is associated with increased rates of anxiety, mood and psychotic thought disorders. And that’s the AMA.

2015

At the confirmation hearing for his predecessor, Loretta Lynch, Senator Sessions asked her if she supported the legalization of marijuana. She answered she did not, leading Sen. Sessions to reply:

I believe that the Department of Justice must apply its own independent, thorough legal analysis and as with this particular opinion… what it did approve I think clearly goes beyond the law.

Mr. Sessions went further, calling out President Obama for his candid admission of marijuana use.

The president said this in January of last year. Quote, I smoked pot as a kid and I view it as a bad habit and a vice, not very difficult from — different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life. I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol. Closed quote. … I do think that there’s been a lot of silence there. I know the head of the DEA Did push back and testified here pretty aggressively but I think she felt like she was out of step within the administration. And I hope that you will cease to be silent. Because if the law enforcement officers don’t do this, I don’t know who will. And in the past attorneys general and other government officials have spoken out and I think kept bad decisions from being made.

In another floor speech in 2015 where he was calling for increased penalties for drug offenders, Sen. Sessions continued to rebuke President Obama for candidly admitting his own marijuana use:

I really think it needs to be said that the president should never have said smoking marijuana is like smoking cigarettes: ‘Oh, I wish I hadn’t done it,’ That’s the kind of message that people hear. Now we have states legalizing it, and they are already talking about recriminalizing it. It is a mistake. We have seen that experiment before. Lives are at stake.

These are serious matters. We made tremendous progress. The murder rate in America dropped by over 50 percent since the 1980s when Ronald Reagan said ‘just say no’ and started a War on Crime. He appointed me as the U.S. attorney in Alabama. I know what we did. And the federal government led the way with tough sentencing, eliminating parole, targeting dangerous drugs in effective ways, and states and local governments followed.

I am worried about it. It is just tragic to me that we are making the same mistakes we made in the 1960s and 1970s. According to new data, 4.3 million people abuse or are dependent on marijuana. Marijuana is stronger today-several times stronger-than the marijuana of the 1960s, and it does impact people adversely.

2016

Last March, Sen. Sessions testified on the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2015, saying:

We have proven and seen for decades that drug use can be brought down, fewer people can become addicted. In the early 1980s, Nancy Reagan, as President Reagan’s wonderful wife, formed the ‘Just Say No’ program… and they worked and worked and crafted policies that would create a climate of hostility for the use of dangerous drugs. And the idea was to see — to bring down the use. And the use of illegal drugs dropped by half. It took 15 or more years but it dropped by half steadily. What a tremendous victory.

In 1980, half the high school seniors admitted that they’d used an illegal drug sometime that year. What an unbelievable number. It had been going up steadily. And it peaked and began to go down under this sustained effort. What I’ve been worried about for some time and have warned about it is that if you don’t maintain that but start going in the other direction, you can expect drug use to increase. It’s just that simple. And it is happening.

Sen. Sessions then lamented the Obama Administration’s unwillingness to use mandatory minimum sentencing to the fullest:

In August 2013, a dramatic event occurred that was too little appreciated,” Sen. Sessions intoned. “Attorney General Holder, the Attorney General of the United States, ordered Federal prosecutors not to charge certain drug offenders with offenses that carry mandatory minimum sentences that are in law. … He ordered them not to charge those crimes. This is directing prosecutors not to follow the law. …

And what are we seeing? A surge in crime, particularly drugs. … This is policy that softens the enforcement of drug crimes against what we have been doing for 25 years, and it is having an impact. I am afraid it is going to continue.

Sen. Sessions continued his remarks by bemoaning the reduction of the use of federal civil asset forfeiture – the process by which cash and property are taken from criminal drug suspects before they have ever been convicted of a crime. In Sen. Sessions’ view:

State and local law enforcement agencies are not given the tools they need to continue taking these dangerous drug traffickers off of the streets. On December 21, 2015, the Department of Justice chose to stop all equitable sharing payments to State, local, and tribal partners under the Asset Forfeiture Program. … I personally have seen cases where $1 million, $500,000, $800,000 in cash was seized from these people. …

Virtually every time, in addition, there is evidence to prove it is connected to drugs. Half the time, they don’t even show up to contest the seizure because they know they have no defense to it. This stops this sharing, and it is undermining the unity of effort that we really need to be successful.

Sen. Sessions concluded his remarks with complaints about the Obama Justice Department seeking lighter sentences in drug cases, followed by criticism of President Obama’s casual acknowledgement of his own marijuana use.

But in truth, we have seen dramatic improvements over nearly 30 years, 25 years, in the reduction of crime. Until this surge, murder rates were less than half what they were in 1980 when I became a Federal prosecutor. Drug use dropped dramatically when Nancy Reagan started the ‘Just Say No’ program, and drug use began to steadily decrease. It is now beginning to steadily increase.

You have to have leadership from Washington. You can’t have the President of the United States of America talking about marijuana like it is no different than taking a drink, saying I used marijuana when I was in high school and it is no different than smoking. It is different. And you are sending a message to young people that there is no danger in this process.

It is false that marijuana use doesn’t lead people to more drug use. It is already causing a disturbance in the States that have made it legal. I think we need to be careful about this. What if this is the beginning of another surge in drug use like we saw in the sixties and seventies that led to massive problems in our communities?”

Then in April of last year, Sen. Sessions uttered his infamous “good people don’t smoke marijuana” quote during a Judiciary Committee hearing on the impact of state-level marijuana legalization:

Mr. Wagner, the issue is bigger than the technical matter we’re discussing today, in my opinion. This is a huge, huge issue.

I was United States Attorney when President Reagan was elected and in the early Eighties half the high school seniors in America had used an illegal drug. That – over twelve, fifteen years, went to less than half that, less than 25 percent.

A United States Attorney who works for the President of the United States does not know whether he opposes or favors legalization of marijuana. He certainly has said some things that indicate he thinks it’s a very little problem.

But these data show that it is [a huge problem]! So you’ve got this huge increase in marijuana-related emergency room visits. This is as obvious as night following day. You make more marijuana more available, you basically say it’s not very dangerous, and the young people have a right to participate with it, and others, older people, do, too – you’re going to have more problems.

Just from my experience in dealing with this, we need to set a nationwide, we need a nationwide understanding about the problem. This is very real. Are you aware that the American Medical Association just last year issued a report that hammered this idea that marijuana is not dangerous? And they were particularly concerned about the mental impacts it has on young people?

Colorado was one of the leading states that started the movement to suggest that marijuana is not dangerous. And we’re going to find it, in my opinion, ripple throughout the entire American citizenry; and we’re going to see more marijuana use, and it’s not going to be good! We’re going to see more other drug use, illegal drug use, also, which is damaging.

I mean, we need grown-ups in charge in Washington to say marijuana is not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized, it ought not to be minimized, that it’s, in fact, a very real danger, you can see the accidents, traffic deaths related to marijuana jump 20 percent.

These are the kinds of things we’re going to see throughout the country. You’ll see cocaine and heroin increase more than it would have, I think, had we not talked about it.

I hope you’ll speak out. You’re able to as a citizen of Colorado, to say you think this is dangerous. I work with you every day, I see the danger and damage it does, and I think the president needs to speak out. I think one of his great failures – it’s been obvious to me – his lax treatment and comments on marijuana.

It’s been obvious; it reverses 20 years, almost, of hostility to drugs, begun really when Nancy Reagan started the ‘Just Say No’ program. I made that mention when she passed away. It was a great accomplishment. We moved this country from 50 percent of high school seniors using a drug – marijuana or other drug – to less than half that.

Lives were saved. Young people’s futures were saved. And if we go back into this path, we’re going to regret it. And you’ve got to have leadership from the top. I think thew Drug Czar and the DEA leadership understand this. But I’m not sure the president does, and I’m not sure the message is getting down to the prosecutors.

Mr. Chairman, thank you for hosting this. You’ve been very astute on this issue for many, many years. You’ve led this committee on drug caucus for many, many years. We made tremendous progress. And just – I can’t tell you how concerning it is for me emotionally and personally to see the possibility that we would reverse the progress that we’ve made and let it slip away from us!

Lives will be impacted, families will be broken up, children will be damaged, because of the difficulties their parents have, and people may be psychologically impacted the rest of their lives with marijuana. And if they go on to more serious drugs, which tends to happen, and deny it if you want to, but it tends to happen, there’ll be even greater causes…

I would just comment that, as I was talking to somebody that has experience in this recently, it was a prevention movement. It really was so positively, so positive, and it led to this decline. The creating of knowledge that this drug is dangerous, you cannot play with it, it’s not funny, it’s not something to laugh about, and trying to send that message with clarity that good people don’t smoke marijuana. And the result of that is, to give that away, and make it socially acceptable, creates the demand, increased demand, that results in people being, ah, addicted or impacted adversely.

I just hope that we can get our thoughts together on it. I believe the Department of Justice needs to be clear and the president really needs to reassert some leadership on this. I think it’s really serious.

2017

Senator Patrick Leahy asked Sen. Sessions about his love of the doctrine of states’ rights and whether that would inform his prosecution of the states that have legalized medical marijuana. Sen. Sessions is dodgy on the response and uncertain of his support for the Holder/Lynch-era Cole Memo, based on what he believes is a lack of follow-up on its guidelines:

SESSIONS: I won’t commit to never enforcing the federal law, but absolutely it is a problem of the resources for the federal government. The Department of Justice set forth some policies they thought should be prosecuted in the states that have legalized at least in some fashion…

LEAHY:  Do you agree with those [eight Cole Memo] guidelines?

SESSIONS: Some of them are valuable in the cases, but the criticism that was legitimate is that they may not have been followed. Using good judgment on how to handle the cases would be the responsibility of mine, I know it won’t be an easy decision but I will try to do it in a fair and just way.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: the marijuana pendulum is about to swing back hard in the direction of Reagan’s Drug War.

Russ Belville
About Russ Belville 191 Articles
Russ Belville - or "Radical" Russ, as he is known on-air - hosts The Russ Belville Show - The Voice of the Marijuana Nation, a two-hour live news and talk radio program for the cannabis community, weekdays at 3pm Pacific on RadicalRuss.com (learn more on our Podcast page).  The show is based in Portland, Oregon, but "Radical" Russ has traveled over 300,000 air miles in the past five years, bringing his show to report live from hundreds of cannabis conferences, marijuana expos, hemp festivals, and legalization events in over 50 North American cities.