Attorney General Jeff Sessions once again took aim at marijuana in remarks Wednesday, forcefully attacking the idea of recreational use and even deriding the growing consensus around the possible use of marijuana to counter America’s rapidly-growing opioid crisis.
Speaking before law enforcement officials in Richmond, Va., Sessions said that “we need to focus on … preventing people from ever taking drugs in the first place,” according to prepared remarks provided by the Department of Justice.
“I realize this may be an unfashionable belief in a time of growing tolerance of drug use,” Sessions said. “But too many lives are at stake to worry about being fashionable.”
Taking clear aim at the eight states who have voted to legalize recreational marijuana sales, Sessions repeated a line he had previously used, saying: “I reject the idea that America will be a better place if marijuana is sold in every corner store.”
Despite emerging science suggesting that non-lethal marijuana could play a role in reducing the skyrocketing rate of opoid dependency and overdoses, Sessions said there was almost no difference between the two drugs.
“I’ve heard people say we could solve our heroin problem with marijuana,” he said, according to The Washington Post. “How stupid is that? Give me a break!” Sessions’ prepared remarks called such proposals “trad(ing) one life-wrecking dependency for another that’s only slightly less awful.”
Related: Jeff Sessions wants the facts on cannabis and opioids. Here they are.
During his campaign, President Donald Trump said he was “100 percent” in favor of medical marijuana. White House spokesman Sean Spicer recently confirmed that the president sees a “big difference” between using marijuana for medical and recreational purposes.
“The problem is that you’re seeing now a disagreement between Sessions and the president on the issue of medical marijuana,” said Michael Collins of the Drug Policy Alliance. “It’s concerning because the administration, the White House themselves have sort of committed themselves to not going after medical marijuana. Sessions is out casting doubt on that.”
Sessions also expressed concern about how patients consume marijuana and how dosages are regulated, saying: “Dosages can be constructed in a way that might be beneficial, I acknowledge that, but if you smoke marijuana for example, where you have no idea how much THC you’re getting, it’s probably not a good way to administer a medicinal amount. So forgive me if I’m a bit dubious about that.”
Smoking is a necessary way to consume medical marijuana, Collins said, because chronic pain sufferers need the instantaneous relief other forms of the drug cannot provide. The dosage concern doesn’t make sense, he added, because there’s no evidence of fatal marijuana overdoses.
Collins said the federal government could easily do research into marijuana efficacy, but that opponents of legalization are standing in the way.
“The people complaining that more research needs to be done are the very people in a position to do the research,” he said. “But they’ll never do it, because they know the research will show the positives.”
Independent studies have generally found marijuana to be effective for treating chronic pain, nausea and vomiting in cancer patients, and muscle spasticity in multiple sclerosis patients. But the Drug Enforcement Administration, which operates under the Justice Department, maintains that marijuana has no medical value.
In comments to reporters after the speech, Sessions went further, saying that “medical marijuana has been hyped, maybe too much,” and suggesting that the Department of Justice may revise an Obama-era stance that allowed states to legalize marijuana use.
Marijuana advocates were quick to push back on Sessions’ remarks.
“With over 600,000 arrests a year, the only thing life-wrecking about marijuana is its prohibition.” responded Erik Altieri, executive director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
Steph Sherer, executive director of Americans for Safe Access, noted that more than 85 percent of the United States population lives in states with medical marijuana laws, with more than 2 million patients using cannabis to address medical needs.
“Statements like these from the Attorney General are factually inaccurate,” Sherer said, citing a January research review from the National Academies of Sciences, Medicine, and Engineering that found “conclusive, moderate, and substantial evidence for benefits of cannabis in several conditions.”
“Sessions needs to stop spreading unfounded, unscientific theories about medical marijuana and take the time to actually meet the millions of Americans that are benefitting from its use before making comments about it being over-hyped.”
Sessions focused on violent crime in his remarks, noting that a decades-long trend in lower crime rates was experiencing a slight turnaround in the last couple of years, with murder rates on the rise in big cities. Speaking specifically about drugs, he touted the Trump administration’s three-pronged approach: Cracking down on transnational cartels bringing drugs into the United States, treating drug addiction and preventing drug use in the first place.
While he spoke at length on fighting drug cartels and restoring a culture of abstinence for drug use, his prepared remarks had little about treatment, saying only that “Treatment programs are also vital. But treatment often comes too late to save people from addiction or death.”
Praising the “Just Say No” campaign famously supported by then-First Lady Nancy Reagan in the 1980s, Sessions said that “We have too much of a tolerance for drug use. … There’s no excuse for this, it’s not recreational. Lives are at stake, and we’re not going to worry about being fashionable.”
The Washington Post contributed to this report.