Conceding that it might "unfashionable," Attorney General Jeff Sessions reiterated his belief today that expanding access to recreational marijuana is a disaster for Americans.
"I am astonished to hear people suggest that we can solve our heroin crisis by legalizing marijuana – so people can trade one life-wrecking dependency for another that's only slightly less awful," reads the text of a speech Sessions delivered today to law enforcement in Richmond, Virginia. "Our nation needs to say clearly once again that using drugs will destroy your life."
That line about marijuana? It came just seconds after this one: "Every three weeks, we are losing as many American lives to drug overdoses as we lost in the 9/11 attacks."
In a question-and-answer session following the speech, Sessions seemed to dial back his rhetoric, telling reporters that the Obama-era Cole memo, which de-prioritized federal enforcement of marijuana laws in states where the drug is legal for recreational and medical use, is "valid."
"We're not able to go into a state and pick up the work that the police and sheriffs have been doing for decades," he said.
Sessions also talked up the impact of Project Exile, a program developed during the 1990s by U.S. Attorneys in Richmond to bring federal gun charges against Richmond-area drug offenders.
"This Department of Justice will encourage more efforts like Project Exile in cities across America – coordinated strategies that bring together all levels of law enforcement to reduce gun crime and make our cities safer."
Criminal justice researchers are divided over Exile's effectiveness, particularly in Richmond, which has since abandoned the project. Data analysis and reporting by 538 suggests that the Project Exile model, which boils down to bringing federal gun charges--and their lengthy mandatory minimums--in cases that would otherwise be prosecuted by local law enforcement, is a suboptimal way to reduce gun crime.
"In the [Rochester] program's 18 years, judges have handed out 633 sentences for a total of 3,411 years in federal prison. But the city had 24 gun murders last year — giving it a rate more than four times New York City's. And community relations with police, as in many cities, are strained. The enthusiasm for Exile appears to be based more in rhetoric than in evidence, which leaves some people asking whether it's worth the human costs."