In this photo taken Nov. 17, 2016, then-Senator Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. speaks to media at Trump Tower in New York. . (Carolyn Kaster, The Associated Press)

Jeff Sessions should do his research, says groundbreaking cannabis news editor

The Denver Post opinion pages solicited commentary from various marijuana policy and industry leaders, as well as the public, for a special cannabis-themed edition of the Sunday Perspective section the weekend before 4/20. The Cannabist will be presenting these op-eds throughout the week.

Cannabis legalization is hardly the most pressing U.S. concern in 2017, yet millions of Americans are fiercely passionate about the progressive shift in drug policy and the criminal justice reforms that run inherently parallel with legal pot.

President Barack Obama carefully navigated the issue of Americans’ thirst for legalization in 2015 when a journalist told him weed legalization was the “number one question from everyone on the internet.”

Obama’s answer to the writer, and to the nation’s youth, was stern: “It shouldn’t be young people’s biggest priority. Let’s put it in perspective. Young people, I understand this is important to you. But you should be thinking about climate change, the economy, jobs, war and peace.”

Now it’s President Donald Trump and his administration’s turn to steer the ship, and yet Trump’s name is barely mentioned in the modern conversation on American drug policy reform. Instead all eyes are on Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the anti-legalization former U.S. senator who now finds himself surprised at Americans’ growing desire for legal cannabis.

“When they nominated me for attorney general,” Sessions said in Arizona on Tuesday, “you would have thought the biggest issue in America was when I said, ‘I don’t think America’s going to be a better place if they sell marijuana at every corner grocery store.’ (People) didn’t like that; I’m surprised they didn’t like that.”

Like most of Sessions’ ruminations on cannabis, he is dead wrong on this point. Journalists easily tracked down plenty of anti-cannabis propaganda from Sessions’ recent interviews on the subject, and his “corner grocery store” opinion was far from the most grabbing. (In fact, keep reading to see some of Sessions’ more egregious lies about marijuana.)

Also precarious is Sessions’ supposed surprise on the subject. In an era when 60 percent of Americans want legal cannabis, one in eight U.S. adults say they currently consume marijuana and state legalization initiatives are going eight for nine on Election Day, why would Sessions be surprised Americans “didn’t like” his anti-legalization stance, let alone his baseless campaign against a non-lethal plant-based drug that has, by every available metric, proven itself to be significantly safer than many of the other substances we vend recreationally?

This much is true: Sessions is wrong on cannabis. His views, talking points and preferred drug data sets need some updating. But there’s also a reason for that.

Sessions spent his formative years in his native Alabama, now considered America’s second-most conservative state according to Gallup. He graduated high school and became an Eagle Scout in the mid-’60s, and he picked up a college degree in 1969 and a doctor of jurisprudence in 1973. His political career began when he was hired as an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama in 1975 — one year after President Richard Nixon resigned from his scandal-ridden presidency.

This time, place and context is extremely important. Sessions grew up in an era of overzealous anti-drug education, and in a part of the country where that message was often exaggerated. Sessions began his career in politics and law at a time when America was in transition, and regardless of Nixon’s humiliating exit, his administration’s groundwork for a new war on drugs was already the law of the land.

“By God we are going to hit the marijuana thing, and I want to hit it right square in the puss,” Nixon famously said in a May 1971 conversation in the Oval Office.

Years after serving prison time for Watergate, one of Nixon’s top advisers later admitted the modern drug war was drafted as a political tool to combat those in opposition to candidate (and eventually President) Nixon.

“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or blacks, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and the blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities,” Nixon adviser John Ehrlichman said in the mid-’90s. “We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

We can’t know how many times Sessions was warned about the dangers of marijuana as a youth, but we do know he’s been repeating those warnings ever since. In all likelihood, Sessions didn’t know he was being lied to.

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Let’s also address how difficult it is to change a closely held intrinsic belief. For years, decades even, elders and mentors Sessions trusted told him that marijuana was bad news: a dangerous, addictive, deadly substance that would ruin his life with even the briefest exposure.

It’s scary to hear as a kid, I know. Even though I came of age decades later in the ’80s, I heard the same stories. I proudly wore my Just Say No T-shirt to elementary school. I took part in D.A.R.E. activities. I went to multiple anti-drug weekend camps pushing the teen-friendly mantra, “Hugs not drugs.”

I believe now, as I did then, that drugs have no place in any kid’s life.

But years later, when The Denver Post named me its first marijuana editor in 2013, I knew I had to do my research. I studied the most respected activists on each side of the issue, and I fact-checked their messaging. I delved into the limited base of medical and social research and learned what we’d come to know via top-level scientific surveys.

The experience was equally fascinating and devastating, because it only took me an hour to learn that nearly everything I’d been taught about weed was a lie. And as we all know, being lied to doesn’t feel good — especially when you’ve been lied to for decades on end.

My epiphany arrived on the day I first met legalization activist Mason Tvert. I found myself contemplating the core mantra Tvert had been confidently repeating ad nauseam in media interviews for years: “Marijuana is safer than alcohol.”

I wonder if that’s true, I thought, remembering the drug education I’d received as a trusting young student. And so I looked it up. A few minutes into a basic Google search I learned that pot is significantly less addictive than recreational substances like alcohol and nicotine, illegal drugs such as cocaine and heroin and all opioid-based pharmaceuticals. About 10 minutes later I found this statistic: Excessive alcohol use kills nearly 90,000 people each year in the U.S., while cannabis use alone is responsible for zero deaths in recorded history.

That last part I had to re-read a couple times over, especially given the source, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a federal agency that studies drugs from the perspective of abuse and addiction: “There are no reports of teens or adults fatally overdosing (dying) on marijuana alone.”

After growing up being told the opposite, I knew a wholesale reset was in order.

And to Mr. Sessions I’ll say this: It’s now time for you to do your research.

Our knowledge base has progressed substantially since the ’60s and ’70s — and it’s time he caught up with the times.

And so, here are a couple well-sourced points Sessions should research before repeating his decades-old misinformation:

  • Good people do use marijuana: Perhaps the most tone-deaf thing Sessions has ever said about weed is this: “Good people don’t smoke marijuana.” Think about the sheer statistics alone: More than 22 million Americans used cannabis in the last month, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. So according to Sessions, 7 percent of America’s population are bad people? I don’t think so.
  • Marijuana isn’t even in the same ballpark as heroin: Sessions recently said marijuana is “only slightly less dangerous” than heroin. Ridiculous. One of these substances is not like the other. Marijuana is non-deadly, and 9 percent of those who try it develop an addiction. Heroin is an opioid that killed more than 12,000 Americans in 2015, and 23 percent of heroin users become addicted. (Worth noting: Prescription opioids such as OxyContin, morphine and Vicodin accounted for an additional 16,000 American deaths in 2015.)
  • Obama wasn’t wrong — Sessions is: Legal cannabis doesn’t have to be a partisan issue. Just ask the many Republicans fighting for legalization. Sessions recently said, “I think one of (Obama’s) great failures … is his lax treatment in comments on marijuana.” It’s true that Obama told The New Yorker in 2014, “I don’t think (marijuana) is more dangerous than alcohol.” In 2016 Obama told Rolling Stone he believed cannabis should be treated like “cigarettes and alcohol.” Sessions calls that lax, but I call it fact-based.

This is an epic learning opportunity. If Sessions does his research, via Google or his colleagues at the National Institutes of Health, he can escape his anachronistic worldview and gain respect among Americans.

As alcohol and opioids kill more than 100,000 Americans each year, cannabis kills none.

Marijuana needs to be regulated safely, yes – but also sanely. And the more Sessions learns about this devastatingly misunderstood plant, the more he’ll be able to thoughtfully and fairly govern.

Ricardo Baca is the former founding editor of The Cannabist. 

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