Congress Reacts to Sessions’ Drug War
May 15, 2017
Last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a new sentencing directive to federal prosecutors, repealing the Obama-era Smart on Crime Initiative, which was intended to create leniency and lighter sentencing for low-level drug offenders. The Smart on Crime Initiative aimed to clear up our overcrowded prison systems, significantly reduce legal costs related to enforcing minor drug offenders, and also allows law enforcement to focus on bigger fish, such as suppliers and traffickers. The change being pursued by Sessions asks that federal prosecutors get significantly tougher on drug defendants, enforcing harsher penalties and minimum sentencing. In addition, a task force was launched by Sessions to look at changes in enforcement as it relates to cannabis, which remains a Schedule I drug by the federal government. Cannabis advocates on both the medical and recreational side fear the worst, but now is not the time for a knee-jerk reaction, because we still don’t know how this will all unfold. What we do know is that states and their representatives do not plan to take this laying down. Here’s what some of Congress is saying about the situation.
“Harsher sentences for non-violent drug crimes cost taxpayers more money and waste limited resources that are needed to go after more dangerous, violent offenders who put the public at risk. The beneficiaries of these policies are often private prisons who profit from locking up more inmates, disproportionately affecting people of color.” Congressman Steve Cohen (D-TN)
“Mandatory minimum sentences have unfairly and disproportionately incarcerated too many minorities for too long. Attorney General Sessions’ new policy will accentuate that injustice.” U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)
“It will send already skyrocketing prison costs even higher, undermining other important public safety priorities and separating nonviolent drug offenders from their families for years, which has a destructive effect on communities and erodes faith in our criminal justice system.” U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL)
“Jeff Sessions wants to turn back the clock on the progress we’ve made on sentencing reform—and we must speak out against it.” U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA)
“The Attorney General’s new sentencing policy is an ideologically motivated attempt to resurrect the failed policies of the War on Drugs. Make no mistake, low-level offenders will spend years and even decades more in prison. This will not make us safer — quite the opposite, it will strip critical public safety resources away from targeting truly violent criminals in order to house nonviolent drug offenders.” U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT)
“To be tough on crime we have to be smart on crime. That is why criminal justice reform is a conservative issue.” U.S. Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT)
“Trump/Sessions: Let’s double down on failed strategy, add to highest incarceration rate in the world. America: Let’s end the war on drugs.” Congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-TX)
“Sessions’ memorandum is a return to the failed policies of the War on Drugs. It is bad for our communities, and utterly destructive for low-level, non-violent drug offenders. The only people who benefit from these laws are those who have a financial stake in imprisonment: the private prison industry and vendors to the public system.” Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN)
“Will fight AG Sessions’ effort to revive failed War on Drugs. Mass incarceration has destroyed lives & devastated our minority communities.” Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC)
Understandably, all of this is cause for some level of concern. If prospective licensees and investors were nervous about getting involved in the cannabis industry before, this pretty much tells them to completely steer clear. Considering it often costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to get a licensed cannabis business up and running, that’s quite an investment to make in an industry that’s shaping up to feel more like a game of roulette.
Still, the industry was built by risk takers, and there will be individuals who see a potential crackdown by Sessions as an opportunity. Even as the federal government has increased the anti-cannabis verbiage, it appears that the elected officials are prepared to enact the will of their voters. Vermont is expected to become the 9th state to legalize cannabis and Delaware just launched their own legalization effort, even in the face of such uncertainty. If the actions of state representatives are any indications of what’s to come, we could be in for some very interesting gubernatorial races next fall.
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