It tells you how chilly the public is to Jeff Sessions’s new idea that even a plurality of Republicans, knowing that this is now the policy of Trump’s DOJ, refuse to get behind it.
Otherwise, though, the news here is that there is no news. For years now, a majority of Americans have believed that when a state legalizes marijuana the feds should step back and defer to the will of the people. The numbers vary a little: In 2012 Gallup found 64 percent supported that position whereas in 2015 Pew found 54 percent in favor. More recently, though, the polls have become consistent. In February Quinnipiac registered 71 percent in favor of having the feds back off; in April CBS found an identical number in favor. Today’s new Quinnipiac poll has it at 70 percent, a statistically insignificant difference. It’s safe to say at this point that federalism in marijuana law enforcement is a supermajority preference.
At base that’s an argument for repealing federal marijuana laws entirely — another position that’s begun to enjoy majority support — but repeal makes people more nervous than the idea of leaving the laws on the books and simply not enforcing them. That way, if pro-legalization states suddenly find themselves in the grip of Reefer Madness or whatever, the feds can always revisit their decision and decide to crack down.
Heavy majorities across the board oppose DOJ enforcement in states where marijuana is legal. The lone exception is Republicans, whose loyalty to Trump and Sessions is enough to make them ambivalent about the policy but so much as to make them actually support it.
As for the idea of making marijuana legal nationally, public support is weaker but still solidly majority:
There may be a “Trump effect” (or, more accurately, a “Sessions effect”) on Republican numbers there. Three months ago, Gallup found 51 percent of Republicans in favor of legalizing weed. Three months and one new DOJ policy later, the number has tumbled to 33 percent. If nothing else, Sessions may have made Trump’s own base more skeptical of legalization for the moment. Will that come back to bite the GOP in the midterms next year by driving up liberal turnout. though? An irony of the new policy is that Sessions has reportedly been trying to reingratiate himself to his unhappy boss with some of his law enforcement decisions lately, without much success if you believe WaPo. Trump himself is no ardent drug warrior, having said as a candidate that he’d be fine with a federalist approach to enforcement in states where pot is legal. If Sessions’s new policy costs the party votes, Trump will have one more reason to scapegoat him.
After Sessions announced the new policy last week a round of op-eds popped up in the papers: Change the law if you don’t like it. Rather than Cory Gardner whining on the Senate floor that the DOJ is doing its job by enforcing the law on the books, he could introduce a bill requiring the feds to defer to state law in prosecuting or not prosecuting marijuana users. I agree, that would be sweet. But political reality is what it is; Mitch McConnell is not going to start a food fight in Congress over weed in an election year when his party is already battling wave conditions. There’s no good outcome there for the GOP. If Gardner’s bill passes, right-wing drug warriors and senior citizens are angry. If if fails, legalization advocates have a rallying point to drive Democratic turnout. A bill can’t pass, at least not now. But in the meantime it’s perfectly fair for Gardner to encourage the DOJ to use sound judgment given the scarcity of resources and to strike a blow for clarity in enforcement of the laws by deferring to local law in states like Colorado. “Prosecutorial discretion” is an honorable tradition given a bad name recently by Obama’s abuse of it via policies like DACA and DAPA. Nothing wrong with nudging Sessions to give it a second look.
Gardner met with Sessions yesterday, incidentally, and reiterated his threat to start putting a hold on DOJ nominees unless the new policy is reversed. No dice from the AG. We have a stalemate.