No Good Will Come of Sessions Reigniting the War on Drugs

A worker waters cannabis plants on Steve Dillon's farm in Humboldt County, California, on August 28, 2016. Adam Bates writes that Justice Secretary Jeff Sessions is a long-time champion of the federal drug war, and since taking over the Justice Department, he has continued to make statements that hint at a return to a much harsher federal approach to drug prohibition. Rory Carroll/reuters

This article first appeared on the Cato Institute site.

As a candidate, Donald Trump held a relatively moderate line on drug prohibition, often arguing that issues like marijuana legalization should be left to state governments.

His selection of Jeff Sessions as attorney general, however, sent an entirely different message. Sessions is a longtime champion of the federal drug war, and since taking over the Justice Department he has continued to make statements that hint at a return to a much harsher federal approach to drug prohibition.

Related: What Jeff Sessions has said about marijuana

The Washington Post ran a story last weekend detailing some of the shifts taking place at the Department of Justice, including a green light for federal prosecutors to step up prosecutions for low-level offenses and to rely on heavy mandatory minimums to leverage plea deals.

Sessions is also expected to take a harder line on the punishment for using and distributing marijuana, a drug he has long abhorred. His crime task force will review existing marijuana policy, according to a memo he wrote prosecutors last week.

The Post story also highlights the central role of Steven H. Cook, a former police officer and federal prosecutor, within the Sessions Department of Justice. Cook has been traveling with Sessions as the attorney general makes the case for a return to the "tough-on-crime" posture of the '80s and '90s, arguing that efforts to treat even low-level drug offenses as anything less than violent crimes are misguided and "soft."

Related: Is the White House serious about cracking down on weed?

Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, expressed his alarm to the Post:

If there was a flickering candle of hope that remained for sentencing reform, Cook's appointment was a fire hose. There simply aren't enough backhoes to build all the prisons it would take to realize Steve Cook's vision for America.

Cook, like Sessions, believes that the drug market is inherently violent and therefore the only response is to crack down:

Drug trafficking is inherently violent. Drug traffickers are dealing in a heavy cash business. They can't resolve disputes in court. They resolve the disputes on the street, and they resolve them through violence.

It's true that the black market for drugs relies on cash transactions and violence, but Cook and Sessions ignore the obvious implication. The drug market has to rely on cash transfers and violence because drugs are illegal. Drug market violence is a function of the market's illegality, not of the drugs themselves.

The same was true of alcohol distributors under prohibition. In 2017, if two alcohol distributors have a dispute, they settle it in court. If two alcohol distributors in 1929 had a dispute, they settled it on the street corner with Tommy guns and Molotov cocktails.

Drug trafficking isn't inherently violent; drug prohibition is.

The Trump administration has yet to announce much in the way of concrete policy changes, but the personnel choices and the drug warrior rhetoric coming from the new administration are causes for concern looking forward.

Adam Bates is a policy analyst with Cato's Project on Criminal Justice.

For more on drug policy recommendations, the Director of Cato's Project on Criminal Justice Tim Lynch recently produced a chapter on the federal drug war for Cato's Handbook for Policymakers. The chapter calls for the repeal of the federal Controlled Substances Act and the abolition of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Those with an interest in the mass incarceration problem in America may also be interested in an upcoming book forum featuring Fordham law professor John Pfaff, whose new book argues that local prosecutors are a primary and underappreciated force behind mass incarceration. The forum will take place at the Cato Institute on April 26.