In a memorandum released by the Department of Justice this week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions instructed federal prosecutors to prioritize the identification and prosecution of “violent criminals” under federal law. The directive is likely related to another memo by Sessions only a few weeks ago, in which he rescinded former President Obama’s reduction of the use of private prisons. And, while the March 8th memo does not specifically mention marijuana, it is nonetheless the most worrisome step the Trump administration has taken against the cannabis industry to date.
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According to Sessions, the rationale behind the new policy stems from “crime rates rising,” along with the DOJ’s “strong evidence that aggressive prosecutions of federal laws can be effective in combatting crime.”
The document does not elaborate on what the “strong evidence” supporting the effectiveness of “aggressive prosecutions” as a violent-crime deterrent is, nor does it provide any specifics on who, exactly, should be considered a “violent criminal.” Regardless, its instructions to federal prosecutors are clear:
“I am today directing the 94 United States Attorney’s Offices to partner with federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement to specifically identify the criminals responsible for significant violent crime in their districts,” Sessions wrote. “Once identified, the [offices] must ensure that these drivers of violent crime are prosecuted, using the many tools at a prosecutor’s disposal.”
The second half of the memo contains suggestions as to how prosecutors can best ensure they “hold [violent criminals] accountable,” including a bullet-point list of federal criminal statutes “designed to target violent crime.”
One of those statutes is the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, under which the federal government can prosecute racketeering activity and “corrupt organizations.” Notably, the Act’s definition of “racketeering activity” includes “any offense involving … the felonious manufacture, importation, receiving, concealment, buying, selling, or otherwise dealing in a controlled substance” – and the criminal penalties can come with mandatory minimum prison sentences.
In addition, the memo provides alternative ways in which prosecutors can successfully convict violent criminals – especially where “drugs” are concerned.
“Of course, federal prosecutors are not limited to using only these tools, and, in fact, statutes targeting other criminal acts may be equally effective,” Sessions wrote. “For example, many violent crimes are driven by drug trafficking and drug trafficking organizations. For this reason, disrupting and dismantling those drug organizations through prosecutions under the Controlled Substances Act can drive violent crime down.”
Under the federal government’s Controlled Substances Act (C.S.A.), marijuana is classified as a Schedule I substance, which means that it has no medical value and is highly addictive. And possession of marijuana – even in states where it is legal – remains illegal under federal law.
By specifically associating the C.S.A. with “violent crime,” Sessions’ statement essentially permits – arguably even mandates – federal prosecutors to go after C.S.A. violators (for example, marijuana businesses) – regardless of whether or not they are associated with any aspect of violence or violent crime.
A statement made by Sessions this past Monday raises similar concerns:
“I believe [marijuana] is an unhealthy practice and current levels of THC in marijuana are very high compared to what they were a few years ago . . . We’re seeing real violence around that. Experts are telling me there’s more violence around marijuana than one would think and there’s big money involved.”
Sessions has publicly opposed all forms of marijuana legalization or use, including medical, on multiple occasions. However, his assertion that marijuana is an especially harmful drug, affiliated with violence (and therefore with violent criminals), echoes the rationales used to implement and expand former President Ronald Reagan’s “War on Drugs” throughout the 1980s.
Given that Sessions was once unsuccessfully nominated for a U.S. District Attorney position by President Reagan in 1981, those similarities may be more than coincidence: Sessions’ recent reinvestment into the federal private prison industry, along with White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s comparison of marijuana legalization to the opioid crisis last month, indicate that an intentional return to the Reagan drug policies may be at hand – at least insofar as the DOJ is concerned.
In the memo, Sessions stated that “further guidance and support” was “forthcoming.” At a time when over half of the states in the country have legalized some form of marijuana, however, whether those states will welcome – or even adhere to – such “support” remains to be seen.