Attorney General Jeff Sessions raised the issue of drug policy on March 15 when he addressed law enforcement officials in Virginia. While acknowledging that crime is at a historic low, he said there are new signs of an increase. He suggested dealing with this by more aggressive law enforcement and a return to Nancy Reagan’s “Just say no” approach. My first piece of advice: Sessions would be more likely to succeed in reducing crime by following the example of Richard Nixon rather than Ronald Reagan.
Despite declaring drugs as “public enemy number one” and launching the “War on Drugs,” Nixon favored results over ideology and emotional rhetoric. Following the advice of his first “drug czar,” Nixon allowed heroin-addicted American soldiers fighting in Vietnam to get treatment instead of administrative discharge from the military. This effort led to an even more ambitious project to expand the availability of drug treatment nationwide, and that resulted in a measurable reduction in crime.
On the other hand, the subsequent enhanced law enforcement and incarceration strategies of presidents Reagan, Bush, and Clinton failed to reduce crime. Imprisonment is not only less effective in reducing crime than treatment, but it is also more expensive.
My second piece of advice relates to cannabis. Attorney General Sessions has always been clear about his opposition to its use. To his credit, he has acknowledged that the Justice Department does not have the resources to enforce federal laws regarding cannabis. He is, in fact, generally supportive of the guidance issued in 2013 by Obama’s Department of Justice suggesting that the DOJ not focus on states where medical cannabis laws are being well implemented and regulated.
Sessions says that he believes “medical marijuana has been hyped, maybe too much.” I understand Sessions’ concern about the medical use of a complex substance that is not being produced up to FDA standards nor being distributed by pharmacies. This, however, is the result of a populist grassroots revolt against the persistent opposition of the Drug Enforcement Administration to research and pharmaceutical development of cannabis through traditional channels. My advice to Attorney General Sessions is to use his authority over the DEA to remedy this situation, for which there is already Congressional support.