Jeff Sessions: Marijuana Is “Only Slightly Less Awful” Than Heroin

The new Attorney General has pot advocates in Massachusetts on edge.

jeff sessions marijuana heroin

Photo via AP

Jeff Sessions, the U.S. Attorney General, had some typically harsh words about marijuana today, at a time when legal pot supporters in Massachusetts and elsewhere are on high alert over how the new government will treat the drug.

In prepared remarks for a speech to law enforcement in Richmond today, he outlined his stance on marijuana use, which he has long opposed, saying that “dependency” on it is “only slightly less awful” than heroin.

I realize this may be an unfashionable belief in a time of growing tolerance of drug use.  But too many lives are at stake to worry about being fashionable.  I reject the idea that America will be a better place if marijuana is sold in every corner store.  And I am astonished to hear people suggest that we can solve our heroin crisis by legalizing marijuana – so people can trade one life-wrecking dependency for another that’s only slightly less awful.  Our nation needs to say clearly once again that using drugs will destroy your life.

To that end, he continued, he said he supports a renewed drug awareness campaign on the “terrible truth about drugs”, like the ones rolled out decades ago.

In the ’80s and ’90s, we saw how campaigns stressing prevention brought down drug use and addiction.  We can do this again.  Educating people and telling them the terrible truth about drugs and addiction will result in better choices.  We can reduce the use of drugs, save lives and turn back the surge in crime that inevitably follows in the wake of increased drug abuse.

His full remarks are available here.

This is, needless to say, an extreme take. It’s true that a portion of marijuana users develop a dependency on the drug, and researchers have found evidence of withdrawal symptoms among heavy users who stop. But the rate of addiction is much lower than it is for habitual abusers of alcohol or tobacco, and using marijuana is known to be much less dangerous than either of those legal vices.

Opioid overdoses killed nearly 2,000 people last year in Massachusetts alone. Addiction to painkillers and other opioid products can set in fast, it’s a perplexingly difficult addiction to beat, and use of heroin in the region has become even more dangerous amid the rise of a new, highly concentrated drug called fentanyl. You can’t overdose on marijuana.

Among other medical applications, marijuana can be used to treat chronic pain, as a substitute for addictive painkilling drugs, and areas with greater access to medical marijuana appear to have reduced levels of opioid abuse.

Sessions also told reporters on Monday he thinks “medical marijuana has been hyped, maybe too much.”

While he has sent signals he sees merit in Obama-era guidelines on priorities for drug enforcement, Sessions on Wednesday did not address the big question on the minds of Massachusetts pro-cannabis activists, pot entrepreneurs, and regulators: Will he oversee a crackdown on recreational marijuana shops and medical marijuana dispensaries, which still technically violate federal law?

In a statement today, pot proponent Jim Borghesani, spokesman for the campaign that legalized recreational marijuana use in Massachusetts, called Sessions’ remarks “absurd and contemptible,” and said he remains on edge about the future but “cautiously optimistic” that Trump will leave the state’s soon-to-be-budding marijuana industry alone:

Sessions’ archaic sentiments on marijuana are absurd and contemptible, but the larger trouble area is his ability to put DOJ resources to work counteracting voter-approved policy in legal states.  So far I’ve seen no official indication from Sessions or President Trump of such action.  So, I remain cautiously optimistic that Trump is going to honor his campaign rhetoric about letting states determine their approach to marijuana policy.