Don't let Sessions turn back the clock on medical marijuana

How ironic is it that conservatives who routinely criticize the federal government’s allegedly heavy-handed intrusions into state and local affairs seem to have no problem with such interventions when the overreach happens to advance policies dear to their own hearts?

This year we’ve seen a lot of this kind of back-and-forth, including the Trump administration’s insistence on punishing so-called “sanctuary cities” that refuse to go out of their way to assist in the White House’s harsh immigration policies. Another example surfaced last week with reports that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is urging Congress to make medical marijuana programs illegal in Maryland and the 30 other jurisdictions that have approved legislation shielding use of the drug for medicinal purposes from criminal prosecution.

To anyone not blinded by Mr. Sessions’ ideological obsession with turning back the clock in the war on drugs, this is clearly a fool’s errand. That train has already left the station, and there’s no turning back. For at least a decade there’s been a widespread public consensus that state and local jurisdictions can serve as laboratories where models for legalizing medical marijuana are developed and tested. That effort had reached a critical stage in Maryland when Mr. Sessions abruptly intervened by urging Congress not to renew a provision of federal law that holds patients, physicians and growers harmless for using, prescribing or selling the drug.

Mr. Sessions’ impulse to revive discredited policies of the past is part of a more general backward-looking understanding of his office, which he sees as an instrument for rolling back the progressive reforms of his predecessors, former Obama administration attorneys general Eric H. Holder Jr. and Loretta Lynch, no matter how harmful the effect in light of present day realities. We now know, for example, that the policies of “zero tolerance” and mass incarceration that characterized crime-fighting from the 1980s until recently were actually counterproductive because they left millions of people with criminal records that rendered them virtually unemployable, and that harsher sentencing guidelines for nonviolent drug offenses doubled and redoubled the U.S. prison population without making America’s streets any safer.

Moreover the draconian enforcement of laws prohibiting marijuana use not only stripped millions of people of their voting privileges but also strained relations between police departments and the communities they served nearly to the breaking point and tore at the fabric of society in ways that made it more rather than less difficult to bring violent criminals to justice. The civil unrest and violence engendered by those failures were on full display in the bloody aftermath of Freddie Gray’s 2015 death in police custody.

Mr. Sessions evidently would rather re-establish the status quo against marijuana that existed 40 years ago than look ahead to any possible benefits the appropriately regulated use of the drug might confer on society in general and on people suffering from cancer and other serious illnesses in particular. We urge Congress to avoid adopting the attorney general’s myopic view of the issue. Throughout the years-long debate over medical marijuana we have consistently urged caution on the part of state lawmakers charged with drafting legislation governing the sale and use of marijuana for medical purposes. The result has been a variety of approaches to the issue that seek to maximize the potential benefits of medical marijuana while protecting the public from potentially deleterious effects. The process here hasn’t always been handled well, but it has been far from careless where public safety is concerned.

If Mr. Sessions has persuasive scientific evidence showing that the costs of legalizing medical marijuana significantly outweigh the benefits, he should present it to Maryland lawmakers and the public so the issue can be debated in an open and fair manner that gives both proponents and opponents of the idea a chance to defend their views. We rather doubt it, though. Mr. Sessions’ views about marijuana may be rooted in the Reefer Madness era, but the majority of voters in Maryland and dozens of other states see things differently. Congress should side with them.

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