Attorney General Jeff Sessions is rescinding an Obama-era directive that discouraged enforcement of federal marijuana laws in states that had legalized the substance, according to people familiar with the decision.
The move potentially paves the way for the federal government to crack down on the burgeoning pot industry — though the precise impact remains to be seen. Marijuana already was illegal under U.S. law, even as federal prosecutors had been advised against bringing cases involving it in states that approved its use and sale.
The announcement was not taken well by Republicans who say Sessions assured them in his confirmation hearing that he wouldn’t go that route. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), representing a state with a robust legal marijuana business, was incensed. “This reported action directly contradicts what Attorney General Sessions told me prior to his confirmation,” he tweeted. “With no prior notice to Congress, the Justice Department has trampled on the will of the voters in CO and other states.”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) was less angry but still obviously miffed. She pronounced the decision “regrettable.” Sessions may have lied (or not been in a position to make the promise), but these lawmakers were fools to take him at his word. His hard-line approach to drugs was well-known, and the administration’s desire to court social conservatives has been obvious since the campaign.
At any rate, even more irate than the senators will be the pro-legalization voters in Oregon, California, Colorado and the other 26 states plus the District that have loosened marijuana rules. And, in particular, this is another signal to millennial voters that the GOP is utterly hostile to their concerns. Beyond those states, support for marijuana has been rising nationally for years. According to Gallup’s October 2017 poll, 64 percent of Americans favor legalization. That includes 51 percent of Republicans.
Among millennials, President Trump and the GOP’s decision to enforce marijuana laws will also not sit well. The GOP was already unpopular with the vast majority of millennials. In the most recent Quinnipiac University poll, for example, voters between 18 and 34 disapprove of Trump’s performance by a 68 percent to 25 percent margin; they favor a Democratic Congress by a 60 to 26 percent margin.
In Virginia, voters age 18 to 29 chose Democrat Ralph Northam 69 percent to 30 percent. In Alabama, these voters favored Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) by a 60 percent to 38 percent spread. The marijuana decision will not help.
It’s not just the GOP’s position on pot that is a problem for younger voters. Virtually everything he does offends their sensibilities. He pulled out of the Paris climate accord, tried to ban transgender people from the military, is vehemently anti-immigrant (legal and illegal), approved the Muslim ban and a plan to punish so-called sanctuary cities, and tore up net neutrality. His treatment of women is yet another strike against him.
A president whose mind-set has always been backward-looking — filled with nostalgia for a time when white men were more dominant — was never going to be a big draw with younger voters who are more diverse, more environmentally conscious and more involved in the global economy than previous generations. However, in cheering on the president and enabling his policies, the GOP has made itself into a nationalist, protectionist and xenophobic enclave for old people. Trump’s aversion to globalization is at its core an aversion to the only world these voters know.
“The decriminalization of marijuana is a generational issue that a majority of millennials support, including a majority of millennial Republicans,” says Steven Olikara, founder of the Millennial Action Project. “How the Sessions measure infringes on states’ rights and worsens government budget deficits, not to mention the tremendous human cost, will particularly concern younger conservatives and libertarians. And they will continue walking away from the party establishment.”
Young voters have notoriously been lax in turning out. However, in Alabama and Virginia races in 2017, they turned out en masse and voted overwhelmingly for Democrats. If they stay engaged and turn out again in 2018, they may make the difference between a Republican Congress generally supportive of Trump and a Democratic Congress determined to act as a counterweight to him.