Attorney General Jeff Sessions has asserted that the medical impact of marijuana use is only slightly less negative than that of heroin. His comments arrive during a period of uncertainty in the marijuana industry, with concerns that the Department of Justice (DOJ) will crack down on states that have legalized cannabis.
On March 15, Sessions delivered a speech to law enforcement in Richmond, Virginia. During his remarks, the attorney general blasted Americans' growing acceptance of marijuana use.
"I reject the idea that America will be a better place if marijuana is sold in every corner store," Sessions said, according to Boston Magazine. "And I am astonished to hear people suggest that we can solve our heroin crisis by legalizing marijuana -- so people can trade one life-wrecking dependency for another that's only slightly less awful."
The current opioid epidemic has ravaged communities across the U.S. with a combination of an influx of heroin and prescription painkillers. In 2015, an estimated 33,000 Americans died of opioid overdoses, The New York Times reports.
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Meanwhile, studies of the adverse effects of marijuana have been inconclusive. Cannabis is listed by the federal government as a Schedule I drug, right alongside heroin, making it legally impossible for scientists to conduct randomized control studies on its medical impact. Studies have instead had to cull data from self-reporting marijuana users, according to The Washington Post.
"There's not a great infrastructure in place for us to study cannabis well," said Aditi Kalla of the Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia.
Spokesman Jim Borghesani of Campaign to Regulate, a Massachusetts-based group that advocates for legalized recreational marijuana, blasted Sessions for his remarks.
"Sessions' archaic sentiments on marijuana are absurd and contemptible, but the larger trouble area is his ability to put DOJ resources to work counteracting voter-approved policy in legal states."
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Currently, recreational marijuana has been legalized in eight states while medical marijuana is legal in 28 states. The marijuana industry made a reported $7 billion in sales in 2016. Members of the cannabis industry have expressed alarm by both Sessions' rhetoric and signals from the White House that the DOJ will crack down on marijuana sales even in legalized states.
On Feb. 23, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters that they should expect greater federal enforcement of marijuana laws.
"I think that's a question for the Department of Justice -- I do believe that you'll see greater enforcement of it," Spicer said, according to Business Insider.
On Mar. 9, Sessions asserted during an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt that the DOJ under his leadership would be committed to enforcing federal marijuana laws.
"Marijuana is against federal law, and that applies in states where they may have repealed their own anti-marijuana laws," Sessions said. "And I'm not in favor of legalization of marijuana. I think it's a more dangerous drug than a lot of people realize."
Chuck Smith, the co-founder of the Colorado-based marijuana company Dixie Brands, points out that President Donald Trump had not promised a federal crackdown on cannabis during his 2016 campaign.
"President Trump said he was going to allow this to be a state's rights issue," Smith told CNBC. "We took him at his word."