President Barack Obama got a lot wrong as president. But one thing he did correctly was encourage an end to marijuana prohibition.
President-elect Trump’s administration unfortunately could upend that, pushing back on a national mood that has become increasingly open to marijuana legalization — both medical and recreational — and insulting the common sense that has fueled significant reforms in states across the country.
Though he was no champion of states’ rights to determine their own policies, Obama rightly allowed them to experiment with marijuana reforms. His Department of Justice issued a memo in 2013 effectively ending enforcement of federal drug laws in states that had legalized marijuana in some form. It was a victory for medical marijuana patients and the budding industry.
Now 29 states have legalized medical marijuana, including eight newcomers on Election Day, and 65 million people live among the seven states and District of Columbia where recreational use has also been legalized.
Nationwide legal pot is a $6.7 billion industry, expected to reach $21.9 billion by 2020.
But Trump’s pick for attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions, is hostile to the legalization of pot.
“You can’t have the President of the United States of America talking about marijuana like it is no different than taking a drink. ... It’s different,” Sessions said during a Congressional hearing.
Sessions is right; marijuana is different than alcohol. It’s safer.
Nearly 88,000 people die from alcohol-related causes annually, making alcohol the fourth leading preventable cause of death in the United States. Alcohol-impaired driving fatalities accounted for 31 percent of overall highway deaths in 2014.
Deaths from drug overdoses reached an all-time high in 2014, with deaths from prescription drugs and heroin the leading cause of unintentional death for Americans.
Overdose deaths from marijuana remain at zero, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency.
But the legality and federal prosecution of these various drugs remains illogical, and could get worse under Sessions.
Trump has said he wants to help eliminate the heroin epidemic. But making medical marijuana more difficult to obtain, or attempting to re-stigmatize legal, recreational marijuana will only make prescription pills and heroin more popular.
Marijuana is a more holistic, safer way to treat pain and disorders than synthetic pills that too often lead to addiction and harder drug use and abuse.
Reasonable legal reforms that don’t threaten marijuana growers, providers and users with varying degrees of imprisonment, the kinds of reforms that have been enacted in states throughout the country over the past decade, can actually save lives.
Congress can — and has — found workarounds of federal marijuana laws. The Republican-led House passed measures to protect states where pot is legal under state law by defunding certain activities within the DEA.
Actually downgrading marijuana from a Schedule I substance would be the ultimate way to protect the common-sense reforms that have been enacted.
Marijuana should be no more regulated or restricted than alcohol.
Trump has the power to allow marijuana reform to continue, and perhaps win over some of the younger voters he failed to charm during the campaign. But if he relies on Sessions’ views, it will lead to a return to a failed approach to fighting drug use that outstayed its welcome the day it began.