Senate Votes to Confirm Jeff Sessions for U.S. Attorney General

Press Release February 7, 2017
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<p>Tony Newman 646-335-5384<br />
Bill Piper 202-669-6430</p>

Tonight the U.S. Senate voted 52 to 47 to confirm Senator Jeff Sessions as Attorney General. Most Republicans voted for him; most Democrats voted against him. The vote comes after two months of organized opposition as hundreds of organizations expressed concerns about Sessions’s record and racially-charged statements he has made in the past.

“Jeff Sessions and President Trump are stuck in the 1980s when it comes to drug policy, while most of the country knows by now that we need alternatives to the failed drug war,” said Bill Piper, senior director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “If the Administration tries to roll back marijuana reform or to undermine criminal justice reform they will find themselves even less popular than they are now.”

Sessions has over a very long career consistently taken hardline positions in favor of mass incarceration instead of emphasizing treatment and recovery. As Attorney General of Alabama Sessions supported legislation that would have given mandatory death sentences to repeat drug sellers, including people who sold marijuana. He has criticized former Attorney General Eric Holder’s attempts to reduce the prison population, like when Holder encouraged U.S. Attorneys to use mandatory minimums only for high-level drug traffickers.

During his confirmation hearing, Senator Sessions was somewhat coy in responding to questions from senators on whether he will respect federalism when it comes to states that have legalized marijuana for medical use, saying things like, “I won’t commit to never enforcing federal law.” He also would not commit to maintaining the “Cole memo”, DOJ guidance that essentially allows states to set their own marijuana policies as long as they adhere to certain federal standards.

The confirmation of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General is especially troubling given comments President Trump has made. Earlier Today President Trump told law enforcement officials that he is going to be “ruthless” in the war on drugs. In December Trump reportedly told Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte that he is waging the war on drugs “the right way.” Duterte’s government has engaged in extra-judicial killings in name of the drug war, more than 2,000 of their citizens have been killed.

News reports have said that the Trump Administration is working on an executive order to “fight crime”, especially in urban areas. It is not clear what the Trump plan will be, but during his presidential campaign he pledged to enact a national “stop-and-frisk” program. In January he threatened to “send in the Feds” to Chicago. He often talks about how the wall he wants to build on the Mexico border will stop the flow of drugs, but decades of evidence shows supply-side control fail.

Sessions and President Trump may personally want to escalate the failed war on drugs but they face a major obstacle – bipartisan support for drug policy reform. More than three-quarters of Americans recognize that the war on drugs has failed. Most support treatment instead of incarceration. A majority support legalizing marijuana like alcohol.

Dozens of states have reformed their marijuana laws, including many red states. In many cases marijuana reform received more votes than President Trump.  In Congress there is bipartisan support not only for letting states set their own medical marijuana policies but also for sentencing reform and asset forfeiture reform. Both major parties have embraced criminal justice reform in recent years, and there is little appetite for reversing course.

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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