The Drug Policies of Trump's Cabinet Appointees

By Keri Blakinger 01/13/17

Jeff Sessions, Trump's pick for Attorney General, once claimed that "good people don't smoke marijuana."

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As Inauguration Day draws near, Washington is getting ready for some wide-scale changes in leadership—including a series of high-level appointments that could have a major impact on the nation’s drug policy.

President-elect Donald Trump will be able to recommend upwards of 1,200 positions for appointment, including 15 cabinet positions at the helm of major executive departments. Since the Donald’s November victory, he’s named a slew of controversial picks for various government plum spots. Although confirmation hearings are already underway, none of Trump's picks will be officially confirmed until after the former reality star is sworn in on Jan. 20.

Here’s a look at just a few of the names under consideration for the Trump administration:

Attorney General: Jeff Sessions

Via Wikimedia

Jefferson Beauregard Sessions—better known as Jeff Sessions—is an Alabama native who rose to the rank of U.S. senator after decades as a prosecutor and later state attorney general. He is easily one of the most controversial figures on this list, and arguably the one best positioned to make his regressive drug stances a reality.

But he will have to be confirmed—and he doesn’t have a great track record with that.

At one point, he seemed poised to become a federal district court judge—but then came the confirmation hearings. A Justice Department lawyer testified at the time that Sessions had made racist remarks, including the one time he allegedly said he thought the Ku Klux Klan was “okay until I found out they smoked pot.”

Sessions later said the KKK jab was a joke—but the Selma-born senator’s outspoken opposition to cannabis is entirely in earnest.

Last year, he implied that marijuana could kill, and earlier this year, he opposed cannabis legalization at a Senate hearing, claiming that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.”

If he’s confirmed as head of the DOJ, Sessions could reverse eight years of progressive pot policy. Accordingly, drug policy reform proponents quickly stepped up to blast the President-elect’s selection.

“Donald Trump’s decision heralds a return to the worst days of the drug war,” Bill Piper of the Drug Policy Alliance said in a statement. The DPA’s Ethan Nadelmann called Sessions a “drug war dinosaur,” presumably referencing his opposition to Obama’s push to limit the use of mandatory minimum sentencing.

However, during day one of his confirmation hearings, Sessions took a murkier stance on pot policy, saying he “won't commit to never enforcing federal law” while also adding that Obama-era guidelines could be “truly valuable in evaluating cases.”

United Nations Ambassador: Nikki Haley

Via Wikimedia

The current South Carolina governor was one of Trump’s early high-level picks, announced just before Thanksgiving.

During her time in office, Haley has shown some limited interested in pursuing a different path for drug policy.

In 2014, she signed into law a bill that allowed the use of cannabidiol, a non-psychoactive cannabis derivative, for the treatment of seizure disorders. In 2016, a more inclusive medical marijuana bill never made it to Haley’s desk, as state senators shot it down in a 7-4 vote.

Under her leadership, South Carolina enacted a law in June to expand naloxone access, according to the Augusta Chronicle.

But a few years earlier, Haley touted a more regressive view on drug policy when she proposed mandatory drug testing for unemployment benefits, as the Huffington Post reported.

Often, UN Ambassadors follow the policy lead set by the White House, though some have shown more independence. In any case, Haley is unlikely to have a major role in setting the tone of domestic drug policy, though her job could include representing and implementing America’s drug-related interests to the rest of UN member nations.

Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor: Steve Bannon

Via Wikimedia

Before jumping aboard the Trump train, Bannon was best known as the man behind “the platform of the alt-right,” a term he once used to describe the controversial media outlet, Breitbart, which he ran after founder Andrew Breitbart’s death in 2012.

The former Goldman Sachs banker doesn’t seem to have said much publicly about drug policy and criminal justice reform—but the website he ran has touched on the topic at times, if that’s any indication.

At times, Breitbart has been less kind to the possibility of certain reforms, publishing a piece trashing the possibility of further drug policy changes to reduce mass incarceration. When President Obama issued a new round of sentence commutations just before Thanksgiving, Breitbart wrote: “Obama Commutes More Drug Traffickers’ Sentences Amid Heroin Epidemic, Crime Spike.”

But for much of the public, speculation over Bannon’s views on drug policy has taken a back seat to concern over whether the erstwhile media mogul is racist. Whatever the public says, it won’t necessarily have any effect on whether he actually gets the job.

Unlike most of the other positions on this list, Bannon won’t require confirmation from Congress.

Department of Energy: Former Gov. Rick Perry


Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry is one of the more progressive-minded drug policy-makers on this list. Even though he hails from a notoriously punitive state, under his tenure in the Lone Star State’s highest office, he expanded drug courts and closed a state prison, as The Fix previously reported.

Three years ago, he was even awarded the National Association of Drug Court Professionals’ Governor of the Year award.

Although he’s made clear that he’s not in favor of legalizing drugs altogether, in 2014 Perry said he told Jimmy Kimmel that he supported decriminalizing marijuana and said that his state had already begun taking steps in that direction.

Of course, if he heads up the Department of Energy, Perry is not particularly likely to have a lot of say in national drug policy—unless some enterprising pothead manages to turn marijuana into a new form of alternative energy.

Department of Health & Human Services: Rep. Tom Price 

Via Wikimedia

Tom Price, a Georgia Republican, is a former orthopedic surgeon who could be at the helm of a massive department that oversees everything from Medicare to the FDA to the CDC.

During his time in office, he’s been one of the House’s staunchest anti-pot members.

He earned a D grade from NORML and has voted repeatedly against amendments to prevent the Justice Department from stepping in to interfere with state medical marijuana laws, according to the Washington Post.

“Price has a long voting record of opposing the [modest] marijuana policy reforms that have come to a vote in the House of Representatives,” John Hudak of the Brookings Institution told the Post in an email.

“Price is a physician and the medical community broadly has been conservative about the use of medical marijuana and nearly universally opposes it for recreational use.”

As head of HHS, Price could possibly counteract medical marijuana laws by suing doctors who prescribe it, since it’s not medically approved by the FDA. Critically, HHS plays a major role in drug education campaigns, and Price could re-launch anti-pot propaganda with renewed fervor.

“An anti-marijuana battle for hearts and minds could once again be part of the official position of the U.S. government,” Hudak said.

Department of Homeland Security: Gen. John F. Kelly


Another Trump pick that sent shock waves through the drug policy reform community is retired General John Kelly.

Once head of U.S. Southern Command, Kelly has sparred repeatedly with the Obama administration, criticizing plans to close Guantanamo, brushing off concerns about detainee human rights as “foolishness,” questioning the decision to open all jobs in combat units to women, and speaking out against the legalization of marijuana, which he’s called a gateway drug.

“This is looking really bad,” Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance said in a press release.

“First Sessions for Attorney General, then Price at HHS, and now yet another old-style drug war character for Homeland Security. It looks like Donald Trump is revving up to re-launch the failed drug war.”

In 2014, the four-star Marine Corps general argued that the Defense Department needed more money to fight the drug war and that marijuana legalization would harm U.S. foreign relations in South and Central America.

But, although he’s decried pot as a gateway drug, he’s also come out in support of medical marijuana.

“I'm not a doctor but I'm told it has a medical use,” he told the Military Times last January. "So whether it's veterans or anyone else, if it helps those people, then fine. Medicine is medicine."

Keri Blakinger is a writer for the Houston Chronicle. Previously, she worked at the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times and has also been published in The Washington Post, Salon, and Quartz.

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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