After resounding victories for legal pot on the same day that America elected Donald Trump president, activists and advocates were cautiously optimistic. Now, as the cabinet confirmations begin, they are freaking the fuck out.
"Even though there's been a big rise in support for drug policy reform among Republicans and we've had success in the past couple years in passing marijuana reform measures through the Republican-controlled Congress," says Jag Davies of the Drug Policy Alliance, "the cabinet picks are really the worst of the worst."
Jeff Sessions, Trump's appointment for Attorney General, whose confirmation begins this week, was the first warning sign. Sessions, currently a senator from Alabama, was denied a federal appointment in 1986 for racist remarks—he once said he thought the KKK was OK until he found out they smoked pot. Last year he said, "good people don't smoke marijuana," on the senate floor. Now it's likely that he will be the top law enforcement officer in the country, in charge not only of deciding whether to reverse the Obama administration's decision not to enforce federal pot laws, but also all of the civil rights issues in cities like Baltimore, Cleveland, and Ferguson. His very appointment is a signal to cops that the Feds have their backs, especially when it comes to arresting minorities.
"This is absurd, this is the dark ages," says Wanda James, one of the few black business owners in Colorado's legal cannabis industry, of Sessions' appointment. "As an African-American I am disgusted and sick to my stomach. As a business owner and entrepreneur I'm shocked and cautious and I'm expecting this industry to fight back with all that we've got."
In the weeks since Sessions' nomination, things have grown even more grim on the drug front.
"[Trump] wishes me well, too, in my campaign, and he said that, well, we are doing it as a sovereign nation, the right way," said Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines, about hisbrutal extermination of drug users and dealers.
Duterte is the embodiment of the "put drug dealers up against the wall and shoot them" kind of politics that Trumpism seems to embrace—find a simple, final solution and eliminate the complications and expenses of lawyers and judges and trials. More than 5,000 people have been murdered in the Philippines in the last six months. More than 100,000 have turned themselves in, hoping for mercy. Many of them were killed. Others face harsh prison terms. Trump, who has not countered Duterte's version of the conversation, allegedly said he was "quite sensitive" to the regime's "worry about drugs," and invited Duterte to the White House.
Davies points out that Duterte's campaign is often called a war on drugs, but is in reality a kind of social cleansing, targeting the poor.
We in the U.S. have more people locked up than any country in the history of the world, so Trump wouldn't have to change anything in order to be horrible in terms of mass incarceration. But, given the things he has promised, it is likely this problem will become much worse. Because whatever Trump actually feels about drugs, he likes control—and the drug war has always been about social control. John Ehrlichman, an aide to Nixon, confessed as much in a startlingly frank admission to Harper's this year.
"The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people," Ehrlichman said. "We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did."
Trump's stated support of a national stop and frisk policy would likely serve the same purpose, targeting political enemies, immigrants, and people of color, the traditional enemies of the right and targets of the drug war—now even more dangerous since the regime says it will deport two or three million immigrants, but only those who are "criminals."
Even under the best of regimes, these populations have been screwed. Here in Baltimore, a 2016 Department of Justice study found that African-Americans were arrested for drugs five times more frequently than their white counterparts, although usage was roughly the same.
Zero tolerance, as stop and frisk was called here, according to the DOJ investigation into the city's police department, "led to repeated violations of the constitutional and statutory rights, further eroding the community's trust in the police" and "continues to drive its policing in certain Baltimore neighborhoods and leads to unconstitutional stops, searches, and arrests."
It is still not clear if the consent decree resulting from that report will go into effect before Sessions takes over the DOJ.
In Washington D.C., before legalization, an astounding 96 percent of those arrested for pot possession were black.
Adam Eidinger, a white dude and one of the activists behind the legalization campaign in the nation's capital, doesn't want to see those dark days come back.
"I don't believe he is good for civil rights across the board but the drug war is just one of many fronts in which Senator Sessions is considered to be obtuse to civil rights and human rights," he said.
Eidinger is hosting a massive giveaway of joints during Trump's inaugural speech in protest of the administration's drug policies at Dupont Circle 4 minutes and 20 seconds into the speech.
They're not alone in protest. The Drug Policy Alliance began a campaign to "Just Say No to Sessions." The NAACP Legal Defense Fund has been leading the charge against his nomination—a number of activists were arrested last week in his Mobile, Ala., office—and more than 1,000 lawyers have come out against his confirmation.
But, while Sessions may have the greatest impact, he is not the only cabinet pick to signal a full-on revival of the failed drug war. Oklahoma's Attorney General, Scott Pruitt, picked to be the head of the EPA, tried to sue Colorado to force it to change its pot laws, arguing that federal drug law trumped the will of their voters. The suit was rejected and the EPA isn't a good forum to prosecute drugs, but it does indicate something about Trump's priorities.
The proposed Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price is against medical marijuana and opioid treatment. And General John Kelly, set to head the Department of Homeland Security, defended the war on drugs up until the moment he retired from his post leading the U.S. Southern Command. Oh, and he also ran Guantanamo.
Even the appointees who are moderate on drugs are only moderately so. Ben Carson, a brain surgeon by training, is for medical marijuana in very specific instances but generally opposes it as a "gateway drug" and, in the finest Trumpian fashion, casts the national turn toward decriminalization as a kind of political correctness.
"You know, we're gradually just removing all the barriers to hedonistic activity and you know, it's just, we're changing so rapidly to a different type of society and nobody is getting a chance to discuss it because, you know, it's taboo. It's politically incorrect. You're not supposed to talk about these things," he said in 2014.
That last bit, about political correctness, is just the kind of thing to appeal to Trump and his supporters—and that could lead to even more Duterte-like policies.
Before 9/11, talk of torture was "politically incorrect." But once the administration flaks started floating it, then it was conceivable. And once it was conceivable, it was reality.
Even under Obama, whose DOJ was deeply concerned with Civil Rights, police officers around the country regularly engaged in the extrajudicial executions of citizens, often for minor offenses like drugs. According to the Guardian's The Counted, police killed 1091 people in the U.S. last year, a disproportionate number of them black. It is almost impossible to imagine that this slaughter will decrease under Trump and Sessions. Instead, we need to be ready for the worst.