Yesterday Chuck Grassley and Dianne Feinstein, the two oldest members of the U.S. Senate and two of its most enthusiastic drug warriors, held a hearing that posed the question, "Is the Department of Justice Adequately Protecting the Public From the Impact of State Recreational Marijuana Legalization?" You can probably guess their answer, especially if you know that three of the witnessess chosen by Grassley, an Iowa Republican, and Feinstein, a California Democrat, are prominent marijuana foes: a U.S. attorney from California, Nebraska's attorney general, and an adviser to the anti-pot group SAM. The fourth witness, an analyst from the Government Accountability Office, was there to present a report concluding that the Justice Department "should document its approach to monitoring the effects of legalization."
Grassley complained that "the Department of Justice decided to all but abandon the enforcement of federal law relating to the possession, cultivation, and distribution of marijuana in states that were in the process of becoming the only jurisdictions in the world to legalize and regulate all these activities for recreational use." That's a bit of an exaggeration, since the feds continue to pursue marijuana charges against growers who do not comply with state law (and sometimes against those who arguably do). But it is true that the DOJ so far has refrained from raiding and shutting down state-licensed marijuana merchants in Colorado and Washington. Its current policy is to target such businesses only if their activities implicate "federal law enforcement priorities."
Grassley, Feinstein, and their allies in the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control do not like that policy. Yesterday Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) provided some insight into why, warning that the message sent by legalizing marijuana (that "it's not very dangerous") threatens to reverse reductions in adolescent drug use that he attributed to the "prevention movement" exemplified by Nancy Reagan's Just Say No campaign:
I can't tell you how concerning it is for me, emotionally and personally, to see the possibility that we will reverse the progress that we've made….
It was the prevention movement that really was so positive, and it led to this decline. The creating of knowledge that this drug is dangerous, it cannot be played with, it is not funny, it's not something to laugh about, and trying to send that message with clarity, that good people don't smoke marijuana.
This is not the first time that Sessions, who served as a U.S. attorney during the Reagan administration, has pined for the days of Just Say No. But crediting Nancy Reagan for a decline in drug use that began before she latched onto her pet cause is scientifically problematic, and so are the messages Sessions wants the youth of America to hear—especially the idea that "good people don't smoke marijuana," which condemns at least two-fifths of the population (and probably more like half, allowing for underreporting by survey respondents).
I don't know whether Sessions actually believes that everyone who has tried marijuana is evil or just wants schoolchildren to believe that. I'd be inclined toward the latter interpretation, except that this is the same senator who argued that President Obama was obviously wrong to say marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol because "Lady Gaga says she's addicted to it and it is not harmless."