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Clarence Page: Sessions tries to push back clock against legal pot

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Clarence Page, Syndicated Columnist

An ill-advised order by Attorney General Jeff Sessions makes federal marijuana prosecutions easier in states that have legalized it. It reminds me of H.L. Mencken's famous definition of Puritanism: "The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy."

Clarence Page
Clarence Page

What other reason could President Donald Trump's attorney general have for interrupting the orderly process undertaken by various states over the past two decades to decide marijuana laws for themselves?

Marijuana already was illegal under federal law, but Sessions' order revokes guidance by the Department of Justice under President Barack Obama that discouraged federal law enforcement in states where pot was legal.

Since California became the first state to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes in 1996, we now have 29 states and the District of Columbia that have legalized medical use of cannabis and eight that allow recreational use.

Legal pot is rapidly losing its earlier stigma -- but not with Sessions, a long-standing anti-weed zealot. The former Alabama senator and federal prosecutor once joked, according to Senate testimony by a former colleague, that the Ku Klux Klan was "OK, until he learned that they smoked marijuana."

Sessions denies that he's a racist, but, whether he pays attention or not, the federal marijuana law he desires so zealously to enforce has decidedly racist roots and a racially skewed impact.

The federal government did not regulate marijuana until Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937 at the urging of Harry J. Anslinger, who became the first commissioner of the new Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930. Formerly an assistant commissioner of Treasury's Bureau of Prohibition, Anslinger turned to crusading against drugs, particularly marijuana.

Aided by newspaper giant William Randolph Hearst, Anslinger promoted the notion that Mexican immigrants and black jazz musicians (singer Billie Holiday became "public enemy No. 1" in his trumped-up pursuit) were behind a national movement to undermine America with pot.

Today's federal drug laws are rooted in the 1970 Controlled Substances Act under President Richard Nixon. It put marijuana in "Schedule 1," the most restrictive category, along with heroin and LSD, drugs that the federal government deemed as having no valid medical uses and a high potential for abuse.

Although his own investigative panel recommended decriminalizing marijuana, Nixon's aides later cited his animus toward hippies and black political activists as leading him to reject that move.

The result has been a half-century of a policy that still has a disproportionately negative impact on nonwhites. African-Americans are almost four times more likely to be arrested for pot possession than whites, according to university-reviewed studies by the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch, even though their usage rates are similar.

At the same time, people suffering from a variety of ailments ranging from glaucoma to social anxiety can, with a physician's recommendation, procure marijuana to alleviate their symptoms in states that allow it. What will happen to those folks, among others currently engaged with the industry, has now been thrown into a new state of uncertainty by Sessions' move.

For now, the impact can vary according to the jurisdiction of each U.S. attorney. The political reaction has crossed party lines. Republicans Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, one of the first states to legalize recreational grass, expressed a sense of betrayal. Before his confirmation, Sessions assured Gardner that he would leave the former policy in place, Gardner tweeted.

We'd all be better off if the federal government left this national drug experiment to the laboratory of the states. Sessions, a famously strong believer in states' rights on other matters, shouldn't turn away from that principle on this issue, when it could do the most good.

CLARENCE PAGE writes for the Chicago Tribune. His column is distributed by Tribune Content Agency.