Legal marijuana is facing its first yuuge fight

A pot advocate marking the annual “420 Day” in Washington Square Park on April 20, 2015. According to lore, the number marks the time — 4:20 p.m. — when a group of 1970s high school students would light up to celebrate the end of the school day right before their band’s practice session. Photo by Paul DeRienzo

Will Sessions harsh his high? A pot advocate marking the annual “420 Day” in Washington Square Park on April 20, 2015. According to lore, the number marks the time — 4:20 p.m. — when a group of 1970s high school students would light up to celebrate the end of the school day right before their band’s practice session. Photo by Paul DeRienzo

BY PAUL DeRIENZO | Marijuana, called cannabis by some and pot, weed or grass by most, is in danger yet again in the United States. Beauregard Jefferson Sessions III, the newly confirmed U.S. attorney general, is crusading against cannabis and using his bully pulpit to oppose the popular will expressed by voters in more than half the states, who have legalized medical marijuana or recreational pot for use by adults.

“States can pass whatever laws they choose,” Sessions told a crowd of state attorneys general at the National Association of Attorneys General

Winter Meeting. “But I’m not sure we’re going to be a better, healthier nation if we have marijuana being sold at every corner grocery store.”

The Trump administration is preparing for a crackdown on recreational reefer, according to multiple press reports. Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, said that states with legalized marijuana will see “greater enforcement” of federal laws surrounding the plant ― a move that would contradict Trump’s 2016 campaign promise to honor state marijuana laws. The administration has been connecting cannabis use with the spike in opioid deaths that has swept the nation since the 2008 recession sparked massive job losses throughout the heartland. Opioids are drugs, like heroin and OxyContin, which originate from the opium poppy and are quite effective at relieving pain, may be a little too effective for those susceptible to the drug’s powerful addictive properties.

While it may seem that cannabis and heroin have little in common, they do share one major feature: Both are considered Schedule 1 drugs under the federal Controlled Substances Act. That means the feds say there is no acceptable medical use for cannabis and it cannot be sold at pharmacies; and, despite state legalization efforts, the formidable federal police apparatus could crackdown on marijuana growers and dispensaries that have been operating legally throughout the country. The Obama administration had decided to let states decide, but, ironically, under the states’ rights administration of Trump, those days may be coming to an end.

A professor at the University of Denver, Sam Kamin teaches courses on marijuana law. He takes issue with Spicer’s comments.

“While marijuana has long been derided as a gateway drug,” Kamin said, “growing evidence shows that marijuana can serve as a substitute for or adjunct to the use of opiates to control chronic pain. In short, the opiate crisis might be a reason to expand access to marijuana rather than to contract it.”

Cannabis is not particularly addictive and there are no reports in recorded history of anyone ever dying from pot. Despite the drug’s obvious safety, it has been illegal since at least the 1930s when cannabis fell victim to anti-Mexican feelings. The drug was associated with foreigners, and films like “Reefer Madness” propagandized that pot was a deadly threat to young people.

In the 1970s another president at odds with millions, hateful and suspicious toward his political enemies and looking for a cheap shot, embraced pot laws as a way of punishing his opponents. Tapes released during the Watergate hearings apparently show President Richard Nixon and his cronies discussing using drug laws as leverage against antiwar protesters.

Activist Paul Stanford is founder of the Hemp and Cannabis Foundation, which helps sick people get access to medical cannabis. He said the Trump anti-cannabis agenda has sent a “cold shiver down my spine.”

“I could face the possibility of a penalty of life in prison without parole if I were convicted of growing marijuana under federal law, although I have a state permit,” he said.

But Stanford also emphasized a paragraph in the Controlled Substances Act which buoys some cannabis activists. The section, titled 21 USC 903, says that federal drug law cannot cause “the exclusion of any State law” that differs from federal drug law. According to Stanford, this provision means that state drug laws can “trump” federal law. The same law also states that there has to be a “positive conflict” between state and federal law for the feds to win jurisdiction. But some legal experts argue that means a state requiring the use of an illegal drug, not just allowing it.

Stanford notes that Trump “took both sides of every issue,” and said several times that states should decide the matter. But he said he fears Sessions, who once advocated the death penalty for second-offense marijuana sellers, something Sessions said he no longer believes. As a U.S. attorney in Alabama in the 1980s, Sessions said he thought the Ku Klux Klan “were O.K. until I found out they smoked pot.” Although Sessions later retracted the statement as a “joke,” it’s been noted that case was about an African-American man who was brutally assaulted by whites.

Erik Altieri, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, said Sessions is a threat and he could begin blocking ballot initiatives, conduct raids on legal businesses and dismantle the legal cannabis industry that has already been established in Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska.

Stanford said he believes the real reason the government wants to stop cannabis is not because it’s a drug and not primarily because of Sessions, but because the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, was the former C.E.O. of oil giant Exxon. Stanford said that cannabis oil, which comes from the plant’s seeds, can be used to replace diesel fuel and could democratize and make the oil business less toxic by replacing petrochemicals.

He also noted the byproduct of cannabis oil production is a protein-and-fiber-rich meal that can be used as a healthy food. Stanford added that more people are switching their drug of choice from alcohol to cannabis and that there has been a reduction of domestic violence, as a result.

With seven of eight states this past November legalizing cannabis for adults, and polls showing overwhelming support for legalization, the administration may find itself in an even bigger fight than Trump’s attempts to block Muslims, build a wall against Mexican immigrants and deport illegals by the millions.

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