Drug war? DHS Secretary vs AG on marijuana

Does the Trump administration have a single policy on marijuana? An interview with Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly on Meet the Press yesterday appeared to open up at least a philosophical rift between two key national-security Cabinet officials on the threat from international marijuana trafficking. Kelly told Chuck Todd that marijuana is “not a factor in the drug war,” which seems to contradict the testimony given by Jeff Sessions at his confirmation hearing two months ago:


CHUCK TODD: Your purview. But you talked about the difficulty – you were trying to find partners at the time in Central America to help you with this, and the U.S. drug consumption, the U.S. drug consumer, you thought as part of the problem in all of this. Explain.

SEC. JOHN KELLY: Drug consumption in the United States is the problem. Just cocaine alone when you consider the massive amounts of profit that come out of the United States. The trafficker’s biggest problem is not getting drugs, till now, into the United States. The biggest problem they had was laundering the money.

So when you have that much profit coming out of the United States, and that profit is managed by cartels that are beyond violent. And so you go to the Latin American countries, Mexico, the United States for that matter. You mentioned corruption already. The kind of money they can offer an attorney general in Guatemala or a police chief in Mexico City, the kind of money they can offer -and if you don’t take the money they’re happy to send your youngest child’s head to your home in a plastic bag.

CHUCK TODD: You’d said, though, the hypocrisy aspect of it. Meaning –


CHUCK TODD: –these Central American countries — is the idea of, for instance, marijuana legalization, does that help your problem or hurt your problem?

SEC. JOHN KELLY: Yeah, marijuana is not a factor in the drug war.

CHUCK TODD: This really is a cocaine, and in some cases the opioid, sort of, copycats?

SEC. JOHN KELLY: It’s three things. Methamphetamine. Almost all produced in Mexico. Heroin. Virtually all produced in Mexico. And cocaine that comes up from further south. Those three drugs result in the death of i think in ’15, I think, of 52,000 people to include opiates. It’s a massive problem. 52,000 Americans dead. You can’t put a price on human misery. The cost to the United States is over $250 billion a year.

The solution is not arresting a lot of users. The solution is a comprehensive drug demand reduction program in the United States that involves every man and woman of goodwill.


Bear in mind that the first part of this interview delved deeply into border security in terms of immigration enforcement. Kelly isn’t dismissing the scope or threat of drug trafficking; in fact, he offers it as one reason why the US needs a physical barrier at the southern border. Two-thirds of Kelly’s interview deals with immigration rather than drug interdiction. This exchange takes place at about the 12-minute mark, and Kelly says the administration is taking the drug war “seriously” — but they need help across American culture, including Hollywood. But Kelly dismisses marijuana as a component of the threat.

Sessions disagrees strenuously, at least in public. Forbes recalls his testimony to Congress in which Sessions challenged lawmakers to either change federal law to allow for more permissiveness on marijuana by the states, or to authorize greater federal enforcement on usage and trafficking:

A month ago, Sessions delivered a speech in Richmond, Virginia which largely agreed with Kelly on how to fight the drug war, but disagreed strenuously that marijuana was a non-factor. Sessions called it “only slightly less awful than heroin”:

There are three main ways to fight the scourge of drugs: criminal enforcement, treatment and prevention.

Criminal enforcement is essential to stop both the transnational cartels that ship drugs into our country, and the thugs and gangs who use violence and extortion to move their product. One of the President’s executive orders directed the Justice Department to dismantle these organizations and gangs – and we will do just that.

Treatment programs are also vital. But treatment often comes too late to save people from addiction or death.

So we need to focus on the third way we can fight drug use: preventing people from ever taking drugs in the first place.

I realize this may be an unfashionable belief in a time of growing tolerance of drug use. But too many lives are at stake to worry about being fashionable. I reject the idea that America will be a better place if marijuana is sold in every corner store. 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. Our nation needs to say clearly once again that using drugs will destroy your life.


These are not entirely irreconcilable positions; it’s possible to argue that marijuana is very bad without being a factor in transnational cartel trafficking but only by ignoring that a lot of marijuana comes into country through those channels. Sessions’ argument on those lines might run into another problem — the indications that legalization has actually hurt marijuana cartels south of the border. Three years ago, the Washington Post reported that cartel farms stopped planting marijuana due to lack of demand, thanks to domestic farm growth in the US.

That also came with some bad news, though: they shifted to poppies to boost supplies of heroin, whose demand has been increasing all along. That would tend to strengthen Sessions’ argument that the attack should be on addiction in general rather than focusing on specific substances. That would make all drugs a factor in the drug war, as Sessions argues, but Kelly may be correct in saying that they need to focus resources on the higher priorities. The two positions are not entirely exclusive to each other, but they do clearly appear to delineate very different approaches by two departments that will need to work hand in glove in dealing with the situation.

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