This isn’t exactly a new revelation—for reasons that I will get to in a bit—but it is another high-profile example of this fraudulent and racist strain of thought in GOP circles that is framed as “states’ rights.” We presently stand in an awkward situation where several states have legalized marijuana for recreational use, while even more made it legal for medical use, yet the federal government still classifies it as a schedule one narcotic. Which means that the government believes it has no medicinal value, placing weed on the same scale as meth or peyote in their eyes.
Since 2008, plenty of states have pushed back against this nonsensical stance, as activists have navigated the levers of democracy to put this issue on the ballot, and voters have largely expressed their desire for the country to soften its stance on a drug that is less deadly than alcohol or tobacco. However, those democratic movements are now facing opposition from the United States Department of Justice. Per the Associated Press:
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has rescinded an Obama-era policy that paved the way for legalized marijuana to flourish in states across the country, creating new confusion about enforcement and use just three days after a new legalization law went into effect in California.
President Donald Trump’s top law enforcement official announced the change Thursday. Instead of the previous lenient-federal-enforcement policy, Sessions’ new stance will instead let federal prosecutors where marijuana is legal decide how aggressively to enforce longstanding federal law prohibiting it.
Because the American federal government is a wholly owned subsidiary of big pharma and the private prison industry (among other oligarchic industries), federal regulators still maintain a stance on marijuana that has absolutely no basis in reality. The truth of the matter is that marijuana threatens the bottom line of several established monoliths in American “capitalism,” and that is certainly a big reason why Jeff Sessions is pursuing this policy.
However, one of the central effects of our outdated and cynical marijuana policy is disproportionately jailing minorities. It's impossible to look at this decision without that feature—not bug—of this inherently racist policy.
Republicans are fond of wrapping themselves in “states’ rights” in order to deny federal assistance or regulations. This decision that diametrically opposes the popular will enacted by states is proof that “states’ rights” isn’t the central rationale behind GOPers like Jeff Sessions’ concerns. The main motivation for this overplayed trope? Simple: racism.
But don’t take my word for it. Take it from the famed Republican consultant, Lee Atwater:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
Twenty-one states have legalized marijuana for medical use. Eight have legalized it for recreational use. A true majority of Americans have spoken this century—stating that they believe this drug should be legal in some fashion—yet Jeff Sessions seems to not care about this fact. There is nothing from the 2016 election that would make any rational human think there was a widespread desire to pull back the progress we are making to decriminalize a drug which is used as an excuse to disproportionately jail minorities.
— Maine legalized marijuana with 46,175 more votes than Trump received.
— California legalized marijuana with 3,495,231 more votes than Trump received.
— Massachusetts legalized marijuana with 678,435 more votes than Trump received.
— Nevada legalized marijuana with 90,405 more votes than Trump received.
— Florida—a state Trump won—legalized medical marijuana with 1,901,033 more votes than Trump received.
— North Dakota—a state where Trump more than doubled Hillary’s vote total—legalized medical marijuana with 752 less votes than Trump received.
— Arkansas legalized medical marijuana with 99,842 less votes than Trump received.
— Montana—who has voted Democrat in one presidential election since 1968—legalized medical marijuana with 12,094 more votes than Trump received.
The only state where marijuana was on the 2016 ballot and lost was Arizona. We live in an era where marijuana legalization has never been more popular. Nearly two-thirds of Americans think marijuana should be legalized. Over half of Republicans agree. If you believe in democracy, you simply cannot endorse this move by the Justice Department (unless you believe that enforcing outdated laws which have been overruled by elections is democratic).
But this cadre of Republicans clearly don’t believe in democracy, and their “states’ rights” mantra exposes the rot at the heart of the GOP: some only espouse “states’ rights” when it allows states to discriminate against the most vulnerable. The War on Drugs is simply Jim Crow packaged in to a more politically palatable medium. America’s history proves that going after low-level marijuana violations means outright discriminating against minorities. This is undeniable. If you find yourself agreeing with Jeff Sessions because of “states’ rights,” consider Lee Atwater’s words, and think about what you’re really supporting.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.