Jeff Sessions Confirmed As Attorney General, Drug Policy Reformers React

By Keri Blakinger 02/09/17

“If the Administration tries to roll back marijuana reform, they will find themselves even less popular than they are now.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions
Photo via YouTube

After a fierce and bitter debate, Senator Jeff Sessions was confirmed Wednesday as the new attorney general and head of the Justice Department—sparking concern among supporters of drug policy reform who fear his old-school rhetoric.

The Alabama Republican that former Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) leader Ethan Nadelmann once described as a “drug war dinosaur” came out on top after a 52-47 vote that fell nearly along party lines. 

The heated confirmation debate boiled over into controversy Tuesday when Senate Republicans voted to rebuke Senator Elizabeth Warren for reading aloud a 1986 letter by Coretta Scott King, who soundly condemned Sessions’ civil rights record when he was under consideration for a federal judgeship at the time. 

The procedural silencing—which prevented Warren from speaking out for the remainder of Sessions’ confirmation—relied on an obscure rule prohibiting senators from speaking ill of the motives and conduct of their fellow members of the upper house.

After the Senate’s rare invocation of Rule XIX, Warren took to Facebook Live to read the remainder of the letter in a video that’s since been viewed more than 11 million times. Since the announcement of his nomination, Sessions has drawn strong opposition from civil rights advocates and drug reformers, given his concerning record in those areas.

After the Supreme Court’s momentous 2015 decision in favor of same-sex marriage, Sessions struck out against the nation’s highest court, calling the ruling “supreme arrogance.” And for years, he remained a consistent opponent of the Matthew Shepard Act that sought to expand the definition of hate crimes to include attacks based on sexual orientation, gender and disability. 

When he was up for a federal district court judge appointment more than three decades ago, a Justice Department lawyer testified that Sessions had said he thought the Ku Klux Klan was "okay until I found out they smoked pot." That comment, in part, doomed his bid for the coveted judicial position. 

Consistently, Sessions has been a staunch opponent of marijuana legalization, even implying that it could kill, and claiming that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.” Activists have warned that his leadership at the Justice Department could herald a return to drug war-era policies—a concern that could be supported by Sessions’ own comments on the Senate floor in 2015.

“The murder rate in America dropped by over 50% since the 1980s when Ronald Reagan said ‘Just say no’ and started a war on crime,” he said, as The Fix previously reported. “He appointed me as the U.S. attorney in Alabama. I know what we did. And the federal government led the way with tough sentencing, eliminating parole, targeting dangerous drugs in effective ways, and states and local governments followed.”

As word of Sessions’ confirmation spread online, reform advocates began speaking out. “Jeff Sessions and President Trump are stuck in the 1980s when it comes to drug policy, while most of the country knows by now that we need alternatives to the failed drug war,” the DPA’s Bill Piper said in a statement. “If the Administration tries to roll back marijuana reform or to undermine criminal justice reform they will find themselves even less popular than they are now.”

The White House is scheduled to swear Sessions in Thursday morning.

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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.